I finished the book!
First, it’s good that we did not read the introduction first, or I think that is the lens that we would be looking through as we read the story. We would know that people did not consider the work to be a stellar piece of writing, or even one of Steinbeck’s best efforts. We would not know how it affected the people of the occupied areas, either, nor how it inspired those fighting the Nazis to continue their fight. We would not know about how it was printed clandestinely, sometimes by typists reproducing the novel over and over, throughout Europe. We would not know that Steinbeck was awarded medals for his work. Finally, we would not know that Steinbeck produced the novel to be a piece of propaganda, not just a work of fiction.
That being said, I found the novel to be inspiring because I knew that it was an attempt to capture the experiences of occupied people and the soldiers who kept watch over them. I was happy to see that the soldiers were also given humanity; too often, the German soldiers in World War II are portrayed as machines. Just because the leadership was irrational, insane, and evil, that doesn’t mean that we need to condemn the people as well. I have struggled with that issue for many years, simply trying to understand how an entire population could follow he-who-must-not-be-named.
Perhaps my students would have been able to make some connections on their own and discover the humanity embedded into the characters who were soldiers. I hope so. I also hope they would see that those under siege were brave until the end and that the collective intelligence of the community demonstrated their bonds to one another, forged long before the soldiers arrived.
The book leaves us with questions about those who died, and whether they deserved to die, too. I’m still trying to answer those questions in my mind, but they would make great questions for an essay.
In conclusion, then, I do believe that teaching the novel without all the fanfare in the beginning is a good idea. The introduction would later illuminate for us parts of the novel that might have been confusing or that we had forgotten, as it did for me. I also believe it could generate a great deal of discussion about perception, opinion, and understanding (comprehension). If you’re looking for a new novel to teach, you might want to consider this one.