East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden by John Steinbeck: 9780140186390 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Cyrus Trask is a man who has returned from his brief stint in the army with a wooden leg and an enormously embellished story about his military experience. It is this military persona who has raised his two sons, Adam and Charles, and his driving pressure which divides them as well. For while Charles pines for the approval of his father, Adam shirks away from it. And like many sibling rivalries, it is just too onerous to overcome. Their journeys are both tortured and enriched by the people they meet and we follow Adam in particular as he winds his way across the country to the Salinas Valley, where he ultimately settles and raises his own two sons.

I have been maintaining this blog for over 5 years and I don’t think I have ever felt so humbled by a novel as I feel by this one. There is so much more than I could ever possibly understand in this story, so much significance and reference in this allegory that I can not even begin to appreciate the depth of it.

The underlying theme, to me, seems to be the struggle over good and evil impulses that exists in all of us. Steinbeck depicts some of the characters as being born to be destined to be purely one or the other, almost as if they do not have the choice over their path. Cathy, for example, is described as someone who is missing something essential, and we come to expect nothing but evil from her all throughout. Yet, there is discussion amongst three of the characters in the story about the biblical story of Cain and Abel about the possibility of having choice over what path a person chooses to follow – good or evil. Ironically, one of the participants is Adam, whose brother has assaulted him quite violently in an attempt on his life.

The unsung hero of this book is certainly Lee, who cares for Adam and his two sons. Because he is of Chinese descent, he experiences constant racism and is dismissed as being less-than, even when, in truth, he is far more intelligent and well-educated than most of the men around him. Yet he humbles himself to those around him and reveals to them neither his resentment nor his superior intellect, unless he is shown the respect he merits. Only then does he reveal his true self or his boundless wisdom.

If you never read this classic in high school or college, as I hadn’t, I would encourage you to give yourself the gift of reading this extraordinary novel. This is absolutely a MUST READ!

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (migrated from bookblogger)

There is little doubt as to why this book has become a classic.  Not only does it exemplify brilliant writing, but the story itself reaches down into your soul and twists your heart so that it hurts.  Steinbeck follows the Joad family, a typical “Okie” family of the 1930’s,  as they lose their farm and are enticed by all the flyers posted to move out West.  Heeding the promise of work and beautiful land and opportunity, they leave everything that is familiar to cross the plains and the desert to go to California.  Tragically, what they find there is that hundreds of thousands have also been enticed there as well, leaving very little work actually available and what is available is paid in cut wages because of the very glut of workers that the flyers have accomplished.  So while the large farmers reduce their cost, the thousands of workers have reduced wages, not even enough to feed themselves and their families.  It is a slice of history about which our country should be deeply ashamed.

The writing is powerfully authentic.  Steinbeck’s chapters alternate between a description of the general state of affairs in the country and what is happening with the Joad family on a personal level.  The more general chapters broaden the scope of the story and remind the reader that this is not just happening to the Joads but to thousands of “Joads” throughout the middle of the country.  The personal chapters bring it down to the individual and remind the reader that these are real people to which these tragedies are occurring — real people, with children, and parents, and love for each other who have personal dignity to lose.

Steinbeck makes a heartfelt plea in this story for the unions and it is clear why they were essential at this time.  It was a very brave move on his part and this book is a testament to his courage and brilliance as an historian and an author.

If you haven’t ever read this book, you are missing out on an important piece of literature and history.