[27 January 2014]
The dominant image of Alabama at the onset of the Civil Rights movement is haunted by shocking scenes of race-based hatred, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the March on Selma. Indeed, Alabama in the ‘50s is such an icon of racism that it’s difficult to view it from a more nuanced perspective. Jeffrey Stepakoff’s The Melody of Secrets: A Novel does not downplay the racism in Alabama during this period, but it presents Alabama as the landscape for a more complex story, encompassing unrequited love, racial tensions, the space age, and the after-effects of World War II.
The Melody of Secrets is essentially two stories in one. There’s the narrative of a young German woman named Maria who harbors an American fighter pilot named James Cooper from the Nazis in 1945 Germany after he is shot down during a night raid. The other, parallel narrative features an older Maria, an accomplished violinist married to her second cousin, the German scientist Hans, and living with him and her son, Peter, in Huntsville, Alabama, in 1957. These two worlds converge when Maria unexpectedly encounters James Cooper, the man she saved and who became her lover over a decade earlier.
The two stories come together in one cohesive melody, revealing Maria’s emotional struggle and battle to find her own identity between her two colliding worlds. Huntsville, Alabama — which becomes known as the “Rocket City” (49) because of the German scientists who moved there to work for NASA — is the perfect setting for the secret love triangle that emerges between Maria, her rocket scientist husband, Hans, and the air force pilot James Cooper, who comes to Huntsville to test jets for the space program, but soon becomes the keeper of the scientists’ secrets of their Nazi past.
Stepakoff depicts Maria and James’s relationship in vivid detail. Describing their affair in 1945, he writes: “Steam filled the bathroom, causing Maria’s sleeveless blue linen dress to stick to her. Thin lines of moisture tracked down her neck and shoulders through dried perspiration and caked dirt. Eyes still on Cooper in the tub, she unfastened the top button of her dress, then, slowly, she unfastened the one below it, and the one below that, and the one below that…” (236).
When they meet in a café in 1957 after running into each other unexpectedly at a concert at the Russel Erskine Hotel in which Maria performs with the Huntsville Symphony orchestra, Stepakoff demonstrates the same attention to detail. Maria attempts to let James go and put her past behind her, but she suddenly changes her mind: “She slammed the car into park, hopped out, sprinted across the gravel lot, and bolted up the front steps of the café porch, where she threw her arms around him and they embraced, and, his hands to her face, tenderly, they began to kiss” (159). Their tenderness and love for each other is the outcome of a secret they share that is revealed gradually throughout the novel. Time does not alter their love, in spite of the complexities it brings to their relationship.
Both in Germany and in Huntsville, Maria is torn between her desire to fit in and an awareness of the injustice of the society in which she lives. James Cooper inspires her to stand up for her values. When they first meet in 1945, James Cooper accuses Maria of being one of the “nationalistic zealots” (71). Out of response she asks him if he owned slaves (71). Yet Maria opposes the German government and stands up for her beliefs by sheltering James Cooper from the Nazis and even murdering a Nazi to save his life. When she sees him again in Huntsville, he reminds her of her past and who she was before and inspires her to act on her opposition to segregation. Yet it takes Maria until the end of the book to stand up vocally for what she believes in.
Stepakoff infuses the book with German to depict the difficulty Germans faced fitting into postwar America. For example, when Maria is talking to another German woman, Sabine, she corrects her for speaking German: “‘Guten Tag, mein lieber Freund,’said Sabine Janssen when Maria opened the door. ‘Good afternoon to you too, Sabine.’ Sabine smiled, a bit sheepishly, as she stepped in and kissed Maria on the cheek. Both women knew the only way they would assimilate and truly make Alabama their home was to speak English” (15). As she struggles to belong, Maria wishes for a life with James Cooper, which would allow her to be herself. Her relationship with her husband is not based on romance but on security and family loyalty, and when James Cooper comes back, she does not remain silent and cooperative.
Maria eventually bonds with a young African-American service worker named Josephine, whom she meets at the white-only Russel Erskine Hotel on the day she is reunited with James Cooper. Josephine hears Maria play the violin during the concert while she is working. After the performance, Josephine comes up to her to discuss the rarity of sheep gut strings and within the conversation points out that Maria’s E string is flat. After pointing this out, she disappears from Maria’s sight, leaving Maria mesmerized.
Distracted by her friend Carolyn, Maria does not go after the young girl. However, Josephine and her father come to find Maria when they realize that she has thrown away her strings. Although Maria has new strings, there was still “some good life left” (81) in the old ones, and Maria offers them to Josephine. But Josephine refuses; as father says, “My daughter ain’t going through nobody’s garbage” (81). Maria feels heartbroken over the misunderstanding, and later she goes to Josephine’s church, where she hears her play.
It takes Maria the length of the story to figure out how to respond to Josephine. At first, Maria is unsure of what she should do when she sees signs that reinforce segregation: a sign at the hotel saying “White Persons Only” (35) and even a Ku Klux Klan robe at the dry cleaner. However, she knows that she cannot ignore Josephine’s talent. She cannot help but fight against the barriers between the races, and her battle comes to a climax toward end of the novel.
One climactic moment occurs when Maria, post-Brown v. Board of Education, tries to get Josephine a place at the Darlington school—a private school in the area with a well-known music program—but is discouraged when the school director for advancement, Ms. Betty Johnson, tells her that Josephine cannot apply because “we’re a white school” (126). By the end of the book, Maria and Josephine see that they are similar and can learn from one another. Maria fights to desegregate a performance and forces her peers to recognize Josephine as a musician.
From a historical perspective, some aspects of Maria and Josephine’s relationship are difficult to believe. Would a young African-American service worker feel comfortable criticizing a white woman violinist? Huntsville may have been relatively progressive for Alabama and for the Dixie region, but it still had it share of racism. However, Maria’s relationship with Josephine serves to undermine some of the stereotypes about Germans and Americans in the postwar era. It suggests that not all Germans deserve to be vilified and that Americans, conversely, had their own prejudices and faults.
Stepakoff adds yet another layer to his novel with his exploration of America’s relationship with former Nazi German scientists to help America overtake the Soviet Union in the space race. This is perhaps the most haunting aspect of the book as it causes one to question whether America is as guilty of discrimination and moral wrongs as Germany. Maria wonders whether these scientists would have been tried at the Nuremberg trials if they did not have these scientific abilities.
Did America sell its soul to the devil? Similarly, Maria realizes that, like Germany, America perpetuated racism within its own country and treated others like second-class citizens. Perhaps the most haunting similarity is that, like in Germany, no one in Huntsville spoke up against the blatant racism. Through her support of Josephine, Maria demonstrates that she will not remain silent about discrimination as she might have done in the past but will rather be active and fight against injustice.
Stepakoff describes Maria watching a Disney program in which Walt Disney presents his plans for Tomorrowland, a theme park that would feature the adventure of space travel. Next to Walt Disney is a smiling Werner Von Braun. They are both speaking to the American public of the fantastic progress of space exploration and Disney’s role in it. Maria comments, “Americans certainly had no idea that the head fuel chemist for the nation’s rocket program, Karl Janssen, was not only a former Nazi but an SS officer. Was Von Braun—this kindly paternal man standing next to Walt Disney in front of America—really a high ranking SS officer? Like those men who had overseen the slave labor that built the V2 and ended up hanging at Nuremberg? Was her husband?” (119). This is an example of the way in which Stepakoff tries to demonstrate that America, like Maria, had its own secrets and hypocrisies. Is one country or person morally superior to another?
At times, the alternation between the two time frames is confusing. Stepakoff distinguishes between 1945 and 1957, but the reader can easily lose track of the details of each narrative, and the technique sometimes impedes the flow of the story and the development of the characters. At the same time, the inclusion of both time frames allows the reader to get to know Maria both during and after the war.
The Melody of Secrets will not satisfy the reader looking for a provocative romance novel with a fairytale ending. What it offers is an evocative case study of a woman trying to find herself between her past and her present in a time of dramatic sociopolitical change. Stepakoff shows the importance of taking the moral ground against prejudice and allowing the truth to be exposed. Maria’s secrets are a result of her fear of being honest about her life and doing what is right for her and her society.
The Melody of Secrets highlights the importance of remembering the past to rectify the future so that the past’s problems do not repeat. By the end, Maria realizes that she cannot be silent like she was in Germany, and that she needs to confront her husband about his own secrets.