Set in the rich farmlands of the Salinas valley in California, this tome is oft-claimed as Steinbeck’s best-known and most ambitious work. Stretched across the entire span of these United States, but focused more on the east and west coasts, and across families and generations, this is a grand story of epic proportions that depicts every emotion known to man. Essentially a recreation of the story of Adam and Eve and their two sons, Cain and Abel, the Hamilton and Trask families provide a fascinating backdrop for the changes in the way this country has evolved from the turn of the nineteenth century all the way up to the first World War.
With so many riveting characters in this novel, it is challenging to pick out a central one. If the two brothers, Adam and Charles, are poles apart in every way, their father is as enigmatic as their mother is pathetic. And if Sam Hamilton is the quintessential avuncular homesteader, his wife is the classic pioneer farmer’s wife who runs the farm, the house, and her children with such finesse, she may as well do it all with her eyes closed. And if Adam is as blind in love as a cheetah is spotted, Kathy, aka, Kate, well, the less said of her, the better… And then, of course, there’s Lee, the chinaman, who is mother, housekeeper and linguist all rolled into one, and surprisingly, stands as a moral compass to be reckoned with. With amazing dexterity, Steinbeck uses this character to present and reinforce the gift of freewill that all human beings are endowed with by their creator.
But beyond this window of early settlers in the west, we also get a glimpse into the social, political, religious, economic, and intellectual life and times of this great country. Before the invention of the automobile and the discovery of penicillin, this was a different America. And yet, what was as old as the hills was the need to love and be loved, to strive to please and earn approval, and to be devoured by a curiosity so great that it eventually either makes you or breaks you. These are some of the many themes that dominate this amazing work, and it doesn’t take long to understand why Steinbeck received the Pulitzer for this.
Incidentally, some years back, I had the privilege of spending some time touring the Salinas Valley, known today as the ‘Salad Bowl of the USA’, and I couldn’t help but recreate many of Steinbeck’s stories in my head while there. The beauty of the land was truly as breathtaking and inspiring as the stories that were written about the people who lived there.