Monday, October 5, 2009

Book Review: "East Of Eden" by John Steinbeck

The only two things of John Steinbeck that I had read were The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. In 11th grade (I think) I was supposed to read The Grapes of Wrath but didn't, getting by with Cliff Notes. I later read it, once in college and again about thirty years ago, and found it to be a wonderful book, well deserving of its reputation. I read Of Mice And Men at some point during high school, and enjoyed it. This was my total experience with Steinbeck's work.

I picked up two other Steinbeck items at sales. One was East of Eden and the other was a criticism of his body of work. I looked at the criticism first, and it seemed to be a cobbled-up PhD thesis: difficult to read and quite negative of everything Steinbeck. I set that aside for another time, and put East of Eden in my reading pile. It finally came to the top and I began reading it August 27th, finishing it yesterday. Eighty pages on the last day. Whew!

It is probably silly of me to be writing a review of such a monumental work. That should be for the experts. But this is my practice: I read and I review. No reason to change now. I won't say I found the book interesting. I got in trouble in high school for saying things were interesting, and one of my friends still reminds me of that. Interesting is not a suitable word for including in a book review.

Rather, I found it enjoyable, intense, well written, important, and timeless. Steinbeck tells the stories of a couple of families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, in the Salinas valley in California. This is where Steinbeck grew up. Somehow, in the brief introductory remarks in the book, I missed the statement that this was a novel about Steinbeck's own family. So I was half-way through the book when a Hamilton married a Steinbeck and I thought "Why does he use his own family name in the book?" Only after finishing last night did I go back and re-read the flaps and see that the book was about his family.

I assume "sort of" about his family. Was John one of the children in the Steinbeck family in the book? The time frame is about right, and the point of view is a first person narrator, with the narrator never actually doing anything in the book. Possibly the Steinbecks in EoE are meant to be cousins and not his immediate family. Or maybe it is his immediate family, and John is the narrator. Hard to tell.

EoE is the story of two men: Samuel Hamilton, an Irish immigrant to America who winds up on poor land in the Salinas valley and can barely eke out a living for his wife and nine children; and Adam Trask, of deeper American roots who inherited wealth, married poorly, went to the Salinas valley with his reluctant wife, and found good land. Both men were dreamers.

Hamilton was constantly inventing things, paying to have them patented, and somehow not making money from them. He read extensively in various philosophical/high-falutin' works. Despite the poverty of his land and the size of his family, he was rich in the things that count. Highly regarded throughout the valley, he makes friends easily.

Trask was forced into the army by his father, in the post-civil war era, despite the fact he wasn't suited for military service. After a couple of hitches he wanders back to Connecticut, learns his father has left him and his brother a significant inheritance (which he believes his father stole). One night a beat-up woman crawls up to their farmhouse door. Adam and his brother take her in, Adam falls in love with her, cares for her, marries her when she is still too weak and drugged to protest. Adam's brother recognizes something is wrong with the woman. In fact she is a prostitute who was beaten up by her pimp and left for dead. On their wedding night, Cathy drugs her new husband and sleeps with his brother. The narrator calls her "a monster".

I have much more to write about this, but fear the post is already too long. Stay tuned for additions to this of for follow-up posts.

No comments: