WWII’s END, NORDHAUSEN, GERMANY (1945)/BIRTH OF ROCKET CITY, HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA (1957): For a relatively short novel (257 pages) spanning two historical timeframes, The Melody of Secrets packs quite an emotional punch! Three assumptions why:
- The author: Jeffrey Stepakoff draws on his deft screenwriting skills to write cinematic scenes, so you feel like you’re watching a movie – a great one!
- The dialogue: as a screenwriter, Stepakoff knows how to create crisp, provocative, informative, interesting dialogue that moves the novel forward at a brisk, page-turning pace.
- Plot #1: original, shocking, complex, controversial. Has anyone else fictionalized the historical truth underpinning this novel? Did you know America recruited Nazi rocket scientists who were SS officers for our space race against Russia during the Cold War? The best known, Wernher Von Braun, headed a team of a dozen or so German aerospace engineers who came to Huntsville in the ‘50s to launch America’s space program. In the author’s retelling, besides Von Braun, two other scientist characters are: Hans Reinhardt, whose wife, Maria, is the central voice; and Karl Janssen, whose wife, Sabine, discovers her husband’s secret past, and in her torment confides and warns Maria, setting off one of the novel’s two plot themes: what about the rest of the team? Is Maria married to a former SS officer?
What did America know? How much is historically true?
It’s a testament to the novel that the reader MUST know the answers. I would have preferred an Author’s Note separating fact from fiction. Absent that, movie-like – and rich book club material – you will feel emotionally and intellectually driven to search out these profound questions once the novel ends, also provocatively.
Here’s a case where the facts are as shocking as the fiction. Operation Paperclip was conducted by an agency (the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency) specifically created at the end of WWII for the sole purpose of bringing Hitler’s German rocket scientists to the US so we could beat the Russians in space (and prevent Russia from engaging them), at the time of the Cold War. However, President Truman forbid, by law, our mobilizing any known “member of the Nazi party and more than a normal participant in its activities, or an active supporter of Nazism or militarism.” So, a secret military operation cleaned up the scientists’ records, enabling them to obtain security clearances to emigrate here and lead our space race. Truman, apparently, never knew his directive was violated!
After learning this, I appreciated the clever title of a chapter: “Paper Clip.” Note: while rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun was a recognized Nazi sympathizer and SS officer, I think Stepakoff has fictionalized the Hans and Karl characters, because I can’t find any other references to them.
- Plot #2: the novel’s title captures its love story, connecting 1945 and 1957. Beautiful Maria plays her Pressenda violin beautifully; Hans gave it to her at war’s end. In 1957, she’s the star of the fledgling Huntsville Symphony Orchestra, practicing for a major fundraising concert for the community. That’s when she spots Lieutenant James Cooper, who entered her life in 1945. He still stirs deep romantic emotions, causing her to question the life she has built in the US, and to make painful choices that have national consequences, made even more difficult by her love for her son, Peter.
- Structure: as Maria struggles to find answers about Hans and to choose between him and Cooper, the pages are turning quickly. Initial chapters are compartmentalized: the reader witnesses the plot surrounding 1945; in the next chapter, Huntsville’s players are introduced. But as the two themes interconnect, the chapters condense and fuse: a single page looks back at 1945 and then switches forward to 1957, then seamlessly races back and forth, back and forth. As Maria races for the truth, so do we.
With Maria’s truth, would you have made the same decision? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Lorraine