Mother Night: Emma Reacts

Mother Night is the twelfth book in Rachel’s Best Vonnegut Reading Order. I am reading it tenth for reasons I will explain below.

I’m breaking the order again, and this time, I knew I was doing it. But I promise I have a good reason. Or at least a reason. There are three Vonnegut novels my local library (I live in Columbus, Indiana, and yes, it is a long drive to work every day, thanks for asking) does not have: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; The Sirens of Titan; and Mother Night. The first two were way back at the beginning of the order, so I just nicked them from the gift shop when it came time for me to read them. (Fear not, I returned them.) But it’s late in the summer at the time I’m writing this, if not at the time you’re reading it, and my time at KVML is coming to an end. If I didn’t read Mother Night now, I’d have to buy it, and I am abominably stingy. So I skipped a few books. Maybe I’ll come back to them. Maybe I won’t. But for now, I’ll tell you all about my Mother Night reading experience.

If you’ve been in the museum, you’ll have noticed the quote we have painted on the wall of the library area: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” That quote comes from the introduction to Mother Night, the only one of Vonnegut’s books he admitted had a specific moral. The story of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., illustrates that moral.

Careful readers of Slaughterhouse-Five may remember the name Howard W. Campbell, Jr. Howard’s pro-Nazi radio broadcasts appear in one chapter, and his person appears in another. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Howard is presented as an American-turned-Nazi. Because I had read Slaughterhouse-Five and not Mother Night until very recently, that was how I described Howard’s character in tours: an American-turned Nazi. Until one day, when one of my coworkers corrected me.

“Actually,” he said, “Howard was a spy for the Americans.”

Boy, did I want to get my hands on Mother Night after that.

Of course, my coworker was right. Howard does become a spy for the Americans, not revealing his undercover work to even his beautiful German wife, Helga, whom he adores and who adores him despite the sickening pro-genocidal front he puts on to everyone. (More on that later.) His radio show, highly acclaimed by Nazis, is filled with secret coding only the Americans know how to pick up. Thus, he does his country many great services during the war. But in this year, 1961, Howard is standing trial for war crimes in Israel. Why? Who put him there? And don’t they understand that he was just trying to help the Allies?

It turns out that Howard’s story isn’t quite the story of a Nazi sympathizer, and it isn’t quite the story of an American spy. It’s the story of a man who’s so good at acting that he helps the enemy as much as he helps his country. There’s a chilling moment where Howard’s German father-in-law says he used to hate Howard and wish he would be shot as a spy. But now, he says:

“I don’t care now if you were a spy or not . . . You know why?” he said.

“No,” I said.

“Because you could never have served the enemy as well as you served us,” he said. “I realized that almost all the ideas that I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I may have felt or done as a Nazi, came not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler – but from you.”

I was lucky I got to sleep the night after I read that for the first time.

Spoilers are almost inevitable when discussing this book; I may have revealed too much already. What else do you need to know, and how can I put it as simply as possible? How’s this: nothing about Mother Night is simple. Nothing. Even Howard’s most amicable relationships have layers of darkness to them. Take his wife, Helga, for example. She and Howard have a gloriously happy marriage despite the war; Howard often refers to them, in terminology reminiscent of Vonnegut’s later book Cat’s Cradle, as a “nation of two.” He claims Helga wouldn’t have thought any less of him had she known he was an American spy, nor would she have told his secret.

So why didn’t he tell her, then? Here’s his reasoning:

It would simply have made my heavenly Helga’s world, which was already something to make The Book of Revelation, seem pedestrian.

The war was enough without that.

Pedestrian? Being the wife of a tip-top-secret spy is pedestrian? I don’t think that word means what you think it means, Mr. Campbell.

But wait, there’s more: Howard also says Helga loved him unconditionally despite the terrible things he said on the radio. I think that scares me even more than his reasons for not telling her the truth. But then again, how many of the two million-odd other wives in Nazi Germany would have fought against their loving husbands on an ideology nearly everyone else in the nation believed anyway?

These are the kinds of questions Mother Night puts to its readers. If you’re not up to them, you shouldn’t be. I doubt Kurt himself was. I know Howard W. Campbell, Jr., wasn’t either. But just because these questions can’t be answered doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be asked.

Emma’s Overall Reaction: Read this book. If you’re too cheap to buy it, do it anyway. You’ll like it. And if you don’t, I know a young intern who would be thrilled to take your copy off your hands.


To follow my advice and purchase Mother Night, visit this link.

Kathi Badertscher, PhD

Director of Graduate Programs at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy
Kathi Badertscher, PhD, is Director of Graduate Programs at the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Dr. Badertscher teaches a variety of BA, MA, and doctoral courses, including Applying Ethics in Philanthropy and History of Philanthropy. She has participated in several Teaching Vonnegut workshops and is a member of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. Dr. Badertscher has been a guest speaker on ethics in philanthropy, including at the National Association of Charitable Gift Planners – Indianapolis Council; Association of Fundraising Professionals – Indiana Chapter; and Zhou Enlai School of Government, Nankai University, Tianjin, China. In 2019 she received IUPUI Office for Women, Women’s Leadership Award for Newcomer Faculty. In 2019 and 2020 she received the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Graduate Teaching Award.
Dr. Badertscher’s publications include “Fundraising for Advocacy and Social Change,” co-authored with Shariq Siddiqui in Achieving Excellence in Fundraising, 5th ed., 2022; “Insulin at 100: Indianapolis, Toronto, Woods Hole, and the ‘Insulin Road,’ co-authored with Christopher Rutty, Pharmacy in History (2020); and three articles in the Indiana Magazine of History: “A New Wishard Is on the Way,” “Evaline Holliday and the Work of Community Service,” and “Social Networks in Indianapolis during the Progressive Era.” Her chapters on social welfare history will appear in three upcoming edited volumes on the history of philanthropy, including “The Legacy of Edna Henry and Her Contributions to the IU School of Social Work,” Women at Indiana University: Views of the Past and the Future, edited by Andrea Walton, Indiana University Press, 2022 (forthcoming). Dr. Badertscher is also the Philanthropy and Nonprofits Consulting Editor for the forthcoming Digital Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, edited by David J. Bodenhamer and Elizabeth Van Allen, Indiana University Press, 2021. Dr. Badertscher is an active volunteer in the Indianapolis community. At present, she is a Coburn Place Safe Haven Board Member and a Children’s Bureau/Families First Brand and Marketing Advisor. Dr. Badertscher holds the MA in History from Indiana University and the MA and PhD in philanthropic studies from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

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