This book came into my life quite randomly. I was back in Canada for Christmas and I saw my brother reading it, and just asked him what he thought of it. He said it was a good book, and one day when I had a couple of hours spare I thought I’d just read the first chapter to get a sense of the book. About 5 chapters later I was completely hooked on this book and couldn’t put it down. I knew I had to have this in my life!
The story is set in Salinas Valley, California, but throughout the novel we do bounce around to different areas in the states as well as time periods, at one point we de get taken back to the American Civil War. The story follows several generations of two families and their lives, the Trasks and the Hamiltons as the author explores themes such as identity, love, evil, and paternal rejection, just to name a few.
It’s a decent sized book, and I felt like it was some sort of a psychological experiment, to see how people’s identity is shaped by nature (genetics/family genealogy) and nurture (events and people). I re-read that last sentence and it makes it sound a bit boring, but with the author’s incredibly captivating writing style it’s anything but boring. We follow a number of different characters with different traits so it’s easy to relate to at least one of them. The characters themselves are anything but stock, and they feel very relatable as they make mistakes and bad decisions as we all know we call can make in life.
As the book is based in America, the author also explores America’s identity. I found this especially poignant given the release and popularity of Childish Gambino’s song “This is America” where he explored the nature of America and it’s downfalls, through the perspective of African-Americans. There is one quote in particular that really drove home the tumultuous character of America home for me:
” ‘We all have heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed – selected out by accident. And so we’ve over-brave and over-fearful – we’ve kind and cruel as children. We’re over-friendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re over sentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic – and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture.’ ” (689)
We can’t talk about America without talking about freedom of course, as they go hand in hand. That’s why the author’s exploration of the power of free will. Early on, the author preaches this idea that we all have the right to choose between good and evil, even if our lives up until then were dictated by one or another. This is particularly poignant as all the characters will battle with this issue of choosing between good and evil:
” ‘And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.’ ” (161)
After reading up on the author you can’t help but feel like this is semi-autobiographical, as reading about John Steinbeck’s life draws many similarities to the book. He was born and grew up in Salinas, California, and has a mixed heritage upbringing.
Steinbeck was also highly conscious of religion in his work, and you feel it permeating throughout the novel – although he himself would become agnostic, which is interesting in itself. The story of Cain and Abel is the most prevalent one, with Adam and Charles being parallels to this story and then later Adam’s twins would be opposites. The large Task fortune becomes a symbol of “original sin” which is a Christian belief that sin has been passed down from through every human generation since the fall of the biblical Adam and Even, which would be another Christian motif.
In conclusion, I absolutely loved this book. The complex characters made it a joy to read and also made this a book one that you can read over and over again and always find something new it in to appreciate and admire.
Q: Have you read a book by John Steinbeck? Which one and what did you think?