Title: The Red Pony
Publication Date: 1933
Setting: Ranch near Salinas
Number of Pages: 92 pages (Bantam Pathfinder edition)
Jody Tiflin, Billy Buck
Carl Tiflin, Jody's Mother
Gabilan, the Red Pony
Overview of Story:
The Red Pony consists of four coming-of-age stories about Jody Tiflin. In the first, The Gift, Jody learns that his hero, ranch-hand, Billy Buck is not infallible. Billy tells Jody that 'a little rain won't hurt a pony' when he leaves the pony out while Billy is at school and goes off himself to work in another part of the ranch. That afternoon a heavy rain comes up and the pony becomes ill. In spite of Billy's life-saving efforts, he is unable to save the pony, Gabilan.
The second story, The Great Mountains, Jody learns that he has desires that his father doesn't understand. Jody is fascinated with the mountains that surround the ranch especially when an old man, Gitano, comes walking out of them.
Death confronts Jody again in the third story, The Promise. However, this time, a colt is born that Jody's father entrusts him to raise.
Lastly, Jody learns that his father's ugliness of temper gets him in relationship trouble with those nearest to him. He also learns from his Grandfather that leading an adventurous life doesn't always translate to happiness.
Steinbeck's spare prose is on display in this book. His commitment to showing vs. telling about his character's lives also is obvious.
Title: To A God Unknown
Publication Date: 1933
Setting: valley of Nuestra Senora, California
Number of Pages: 240 pages (Penguin edition)
Brothers - Joseph, Thomas, Burton, Benjamin
Elizabeth Wayne, Rama Wayne
Juanito, The Priest
The Oak Tree
The Mossy Rock
Overview of Story:
Joseph Wayne, a young man who heads west to settle in the Nuestra Senora valley in California, claims for his own a site beneath a large oak tree. Joseph sees the tree as a physical representation of his deceased father and believes it contains his spirit. His course in life mirrors what happens to the tree. The theme of man's relationship with nature is dominant in this novel.
Steinbeck is well on his way to becoming the author we recognize in his masterpieces such as East of Eden. He's got the "Steinbeck style" going, the dialogue between characters is like what we are used to although at times it feels a little stiff or contrived, the symbolism is prevalent (particularly with Biblical characters) and the use of a main character who hasn't lost his worldly innocence is present in Joseph Wayne.
What occurs in this novel that I hadn't seen portrayed in other Steinbeck stories (I've read 6 of his books including this one) is mysticism. The oak tree that shelters Joseph's house has protective powers and gives him wisdom, while a mossy rock that rests in a fresh spring in a grove has the ability to influence thought and to sustain or take life. I'm used to Steinbeck offering up realistic scenarios, so this mystical twist was a surprise.
Like so much of Steinbeck's work, To A God Unknown, contains symbolic links with Biblical characters. All the brothers have Biblical names with the exception of Burton who ironically is the most religiously rigid of all the brothers. Joseph's father blesses him in a manner reminiscent of the Biblical Patriarchs before he heads West. Brother, Benjamin, is the youngest, Joseph is the favorite. Brother, Thomas, doubts the power of the land to revive after a drought not unlike his namesake, Doubting Thomas and the Wayne clan thrived as a unit rather than as individual families corresponding with Jacob's family in Genesis.
"...I am cut off. I can have neither good luck not bad luck. I can have no knowledge of any good or bad. Even a pure true feeling of the difference between pleasure and pain is denied me. All things are one, and all a part of me."...Joseph put his arms around the tree and hugged it tight against him.
Title: Tortilla Flat
Publication Date: 1935
Setting: Tortilla Flat, Monterey, California
Number of Pages: 207
Danny, Pilon, Pablo, Jesus Maria, The Pirate and his dogs, Big Joe
Overview of Story:
Danny's uncle dies leaving him the owner of two houses in the section of Monterey, California known as Tortilla Flat. This humorous story revolves around these good-hearted paisanos who only require a few friends and a bottle of wine to enjoy life.
The theme of friendship being of the highest importance accentuates this novel. The all for one and one for all theme rings true throughout, although the attempts to help one another often end hilariously. When I first started reading, I had no idea this book would be a satire on society's values (the "sweeping machine" anecdote), a question of what comprises freedom (can a person work and be truly free?) and the value of friendship and what does friendship look like.
Unlike so much of Steinbeck's work, I didn't catch any Biblical reference or symbolism. This story was more about the values of socialism vs. capitalism than any of Steinbeck's books I've read so far. It is also the first book to use humor and satire. The mystical theme reoccurs when a blue light shines over a supposed treasure.
I enjoyed Steinbeck's use of quaint vocabulary words such as "kyoodling". In context: But the dogs waved their tails happily and sought out a rabbit and went kyoodling after it. A quick look at Dictionary.com states pronunciation is as follows:
and the definition is "to bark or yelp noisily or foolishly; yap"
Steinbeck's use of old-style chapter titles such as these:
How Danny, home from the wars, found himself an heir, and how he swore to protect the helpless,
How, under the most adverse circumstances, love came to Big Joe Portagee,
How Danny's Friends threw themselves to the aid of a distressed lady
The only knock I have this novel is that some of the chapters don't flow smoothly one to the other as in other parts of the story. What I mean is that some chapters almost seemed to be individual short stories introducing new characters for the paisanos to interact with. What made it herky jerky is that this happens for several chapters consecutively. I had a similar feeling with Pastures of Heaven, although Tortilla Flat was much better because Danny and some of the paisanos are featured in each chapter.
Danny arose unsteadily and held himself upright against a tree. "Pilon, I swear, what I have is thine. While I have a house, thou hast a house. Give me a drink."
"I must see this to believe it, " Pilon said in a discouraged voice. "It would be a world wonder if it were so. Men would come a thousand miles to look upon it. And besides, the bottle is empty."
A look at some Southern Lit classics.