East of Eden

East of Eden - John Steinbeck

Although I do like Steinbeck’s strong, simple style of writing, this book let me down. With this book Steinbeck is delivering a message to his readers. I do agree with the message imparted, but I dislike that it is pounded into us. It isn’t enough to draw the story of Cain and Abel in one generation of a family, but Steinbeck repeats the story in the next generation of the family too. The message becomes a rant. God blessed Cain with freewill. That is the message, and it is up to us to choose what we will do with our lives. Will we succumb to evil or will we fight? The choice is up to us. Some of the characters will take up the challenge and others will not.

For me the story is too simplified. Look at the names: Charles and Cathy and Cal and Cain, all with the beginning letter C! Then there is Adam and Aron and Abra and of course Abel.

The book is a mix of fact and fiction. Steinbeck records the life of his own family, the Hamiltons, one of the two families portrayed in the novel. The other family, the Trasks, is fictional. The book has a slow start since one family is based in Connecticut; that is the Trasks. Steinbeck’s own family begins in the Salinas Valley of California. Slowly you learn about both; it takes a while to get all gathered in California where the action gets going. It is also a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis.

Feminists may criticize Steinbeck for making Cathy, a woman, into a devil. A little search into Steinbeck’s own life quickly shows that Cathy is modeled on his second wife, Gwyn Conger. Authors do write from their own experiences. I do not make this criticism; I believe authors’ best writing reflect their own life experiences. My complaint is the over simplification of the devil in Cathy; this turns it almost into a horror story. Maybe you enjoy horror stories!

Furthermore let it be said that those readers who are not drawn to character analysis and philosophizing should not choose this book. Here is a sample of Steinbeck’s way of writing, how he draws his characters and how he philosophizes:

Jo Valery got along by watching and listening and, as he said himself, not sticking his neck out. He had built his hatreds little by little, beginning with a mother who neglected him, a father who alternately whipped and slobbered over him, and it had been easy to transfer his developing hatred to a teacher who disciplined him and the policeman who chased him and the preacher who lectured him. Even before the first magistrate looked down on him, Jo had developed a fine staple of hates toward the whole world he knew. Hate didn’t live alone. It must have love as a trigger, a goad or a stimulant. Jo early developed a gently protective love for Jo. He comforted and flattered and cherished Jo. He set up walls to save Jo from a hostile world, and gradually Jo became proof against wrong. If Jo got into trouble it was because the world was an angry conspiracy against him, and if Jo attacked the world it was revenge and they darn well deserved it the sons of bitches. (Chapter 45)
Steinbeck spends many lines on what makes people behave as they do, how love and hate are tied together, one egging on the other! He gives us evil characters, good character and others that are more human, those like most of us who are a mixture of good and bad attributes.

Few authors are able to write masterpiece after masterpiece. I am giving this book two stars because there are interesting ideas and some tremendous lines, but the message is oversimplified and hammered into us. I still like Steinbeck. I gave The Grapes of Wrath five stars. I have chosen to immediately follow this book with Travels with Charley: In Search of America, now I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t appreciate Steinbeck’s writing, would I?! Actions say much more than words. Already I have begun listening to it and feel that this is going to please me much more. It too is a mixture of fact and fiction, but here the ideas presented are an elderly man’s thoughts and queries rather than a rant. And there is a dog! I like books with dogs. Charley is a French Poodle, kind of similar in appearance to Oscar sitting here with me on my avatar. Oscar is no Poodle, though most think he is either a poodle-mix or a sheep; he is a Curly Coated Retriever!

It is very important to pay attention to chapter 24. It sums up the whole book and is found less than half way through to the end. At the book’s conclusion someone dies with the Hebrew word “timshel” on his lips. You have to know what that word means. For those who need some help, here is a link: http://www.oprah.com/oprahsbookclub/East-of-Eden-Timshel-Mans-Choice-Between-Good-and-Evil, that explains what this means and how it is important in the book. Reading this link is a bit of a spoiler, so I am giving you warning.

Finally, I listened to the audiobook narrated by Richard Poe. The narration was excellent. I have no complaints whatsoever. This audiobook was not available to me at Audible, since I live in Belgium, but it was available to me from Downpour