Moonglow: A Novel by Michael Chabon (New York: Harper, 2016. 448 pp)
One of the most celebrated writers of his generation according to The Virginia Quarterly Review, Michael Chabon was born in Washington D.C. He earned his B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and his M.F.A from the University of California, Irvine. Chabon published his first novel, The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh, from his master’s thesis at the age of 25. His third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union won Chabon the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award.
Hiking Mount Constitution
A decade ago and an era far far away, I took my wife—then girlfriend—to the oasis known as the grandparent’s house on Orcas Island. A fragment of my childhood and the main retreat location for most family members, Orcas Island was an important part of my formation.
Behind that locale, my grandparents operated as the focal point of love and hospitality for our family.
During this trip, my grandparents pulled out all the stops. My grandma, an artist specializing in watercolor, leveraged her art connections to set us up with a pottery date. We wandered the boutiques in Eastsound. And as a rite of passage, we drove to Moran State Park to experience Mount Constitution.
Unfortunately and unknown to me, Spring stubbornly refused to thaw Winter with its warm embrace. More bluntly, the road to the top was closed for snow-related reasons.
Ever the driven one, my grandfather suggested that we walk the remaining 2 miles to the summit. While my grandmother patiently waited in the parked car, grandfather, grandson, and soon-to-be granddaughter-in-law hiked the slopes to the top of Orcas Island.
During our trek, my grandfather told many a story about life on the island, the history of Orcas, and his personal story. For me, this moment represented the shift for grandfather-as-figurehead to grandfather-as-human. Instead of the patriarch of our clan, I saw my grandfather as a person with passions and pains. I wouldn’t trade those 4 miles round trip for anything.
Novel Family History
Reading Michael Chabon’s latest, Moonglow, I couldn’t help but think back to that hike. A novel in name only, Moonglow tells the story of Chabon’s grandfather. Surely with liberties taken—novel is the subtitle—Moonglow outlines the eccentric life of a grandfather, telling stories at the end of his life to a grandson willing to listen.
Moonglow covers decades, but concertedly, it focuses on the influential moments of his grandfather’s time in Europe during World War II, the tumultuous relationship between grandfather and grandmother—mental illness included, and later years around the explosion of the Challenger.
Thematically, rocketry and humanity’s pursuit of the stars represents a clear center point of the novel. In World War II, Chabon’s grandfather held a mission of finding von Braun, the German scientist responsible for the V-2 rocket. In later years, the devotion to rocketry, spaceships, and the pursuit of the lunar landing manifested itself in memorization of NASA crews and scale models of all things space related.
“None of that, however, could be blamed on the rocket, my grandfather thought, or on the man, von Braun, who had designed it. The rocket was beautiful. In conception it had been shaped by an artist to break a chain that had bound the human race ever since we first gained consciousness of earth’s gravity and all its analogs in suffering, failure, and pain. It was at once a prayer sent heavenward and the answer to that prayer: Bear me away from this awful place” (166).
While Moonglow includes some narrative twists and turns around the nature of family and the relationships between generations, the care by which Chabon chronicles stories from his grandfather reminds me of that long walk with my grandpa a decade ago.
Our younger generations often forget the personhood of our forebears. Our ancestors lived fully human lives long before we experience the struggles of our current contexts. Moonglow is a good reminder for me around the importance of family and the human experiences of our parents and grandparents. We’re all in this together.
Verdict: 4 out of 5