I am not sure which of the above novels I will be reviewing. I won’t be reading Of Mice and Men or The Pearl, I know that. Instead, I have access to a bunch of his short works and whatever I get to I will get to.
I have a weird relationship with Steinbeck because I read The Grapes of Wrath in high school and unlike other books I read in high school, I have never reread it. When I pick up one of his other novels I tend to like it a lot, but that one I haven’t revisited it. I will and I will also read East of Eden sometime this year since those are the two big ones for him (size and gravity). Also, I had a professor I really like tell me how much she hated Steinbeck and in my college days when I was unable to have a mind of my own, I agreed and spread that false gospel for years.
So here I am:
The Red Pony – 3/5 Stars
The Red Pony is a short novella that takes on a youngish adolescent boy who first falls in love with a red colt, who gets sick and dies. This death colors his life in several ways. He loses some innocence about the world and he struggles with his feelings about the two men in his life: his father and the long-time ranch hand Billy. And he learns to try to make sense of a world in which a creature that harms no one and is loved can still dies in a relatively unceremonious way. But the novel is also about trying to make sense of the world writ large. This takes place in the Salinas Valley, as a lot of Steinbeck’s novels do, and our protagonist is trying to decide what kind of life he wants, one which in this valley is the sum total of his existence as seems to be the case of his parents, Billy, and colt, or one that encompasses so much more, where he would need to set off. So while the novel deals with the sense of the world, it also looks at what is the span of a life. Two side narrative that really spell that idea out involve an old Italian (probably second generation) who settled or was born into the valley with his parents and who has traveled back to the valley to die. His connection to the place as his home, despite having family outside and having a life lived mostly away is strong. Also, the boy’s grandfather shows up for a visit. This is California of the 1920s but his grandfather has clearly circumscribed his life around his experiences as a cattle rancher and a wagon leader in settling the valley, although that was decades before.
This novel reminds me of The Yearling, which I also recently read, except that it’s a story of consequence.
Cannery Row – 3/5 Stars
I did like this novel, even though at times it feels kind of silly. It’s a kind of montage novel with various characters coming in and out of existence for the purpose of the narrative, but it’s a set of narrative, less so a story. The conceit is the novel of a particular neighborhood in Monterrey California along a row of sardine canneries. This area, economically depleted to say the least, is inhabited by the indigent, sex workers, immigrant laborers, the down and out, and the willfully down and out. The stories reflect the basic characters of these people and their relative dispositions therein. The stories are sometimes funny and sometimes bleak, playing for laughs in some moments and touching displays of humanity in others. I can’t say there’s a central story, but there are a few that stand out. The description of Lee’s store is one, the creation of the flophouse is another, and the trip to get frogs is among the best in the bunch.
What this most reminds me of, and this comes way after so I am only drawing a parallel is the Akira Kurosawa film “Dodeskaden” about a group of slum dwellers living outside of Tokyo, which is also a panoply of personality.
The Moon is Down – 3/5 Stars
Did you know that John Steinbeck wrote “Red Dawn”???? Because I sure didn’t! Seriously, this is more or less “Red Dawn”. So a small seaside community is invaded by a “nameless” force, but it’s pretty clearly Nazis (for example, they all have Anglicized German names like Hunter “Jaeger” or Lancer “Lanzer” etc). Once there, even though the townspeople were unprepared and otherwise “docile,” there turns out to be more resistance than otherwise expected. It’s interesting because while we usually get stories more like Red Dawn and a few more 80s movies in which Americans get in arms and fight back, it doesn’t quite happen here. And I think that tracks. Countries have been taking countries for centuries and not everyone is immediately killed. And sometimes they are. But we have a strange longview of history and shortview of life, and so while it’s true America is not used to invading forces, there is a history of it. The Civil War certainly allows for a reading of how Americans handle invading forces…they don’t like it, but that doesn’t mean it becomes open rebellion and guerrilla warfare immediately. And no one really knows anything about the War of 1812, and we certainly do NOT have a cultural memory of it. And since in this novel the takeover is not accompanied by an ideological shift or cultural shift, only a different mindset, it’s a strange and interesting novel. It’s not a great novel, but it’s as good as the worst of Steinbeck, which is pretty good yet.