Wednesday, February 06, 2013

To a God Unknown. Book Review

I like John Steinbeck's writings.  I like Cannery Row especially.  But this book was a little harder to read.  I was not sure where he was going with it or what he was trying to say, if he was trying to make a point.

The book is about Joseph, an earthy man, who feels the earth as himself and does not feel, as Christians seem to, a distance from the earth, or a need to be rescued from it, as if the earth itself is sinful and dirty and humans something special and higher and pure and chosen.

Joseph leaves his father, who is like him in thought, leaving his father in his old age, to travel to California to make a land claim.  There, his claim thrives in the first years, and after his father's death, his brothers come to join him with their families.  Joseph becomes bonded to a particular tree and feels his father's spirit has travelled, after his physical death, to join him, taken up in the tree, to watch over him, advise him, and share in his life.

Each character in the story uses different beliefs and strategies to engage or survive life.  The youngest brother engages in liquor and womanizing.  His death is barely registered by his clan.  Thomas, another brother, tames wild animals, and finds comfort among animals, far more so than he is able to find with humans.  Burton, yet another brother, is a very stern and devout Christian, who is unyielding in his beliefs and catches Joseph talking to the tree, taking the tree food and offerings, much as local Catholic Mexicans would light candles and count the Rosary and go to mass with its sacred objects.  He confronts his brother, and calls him a pagan.

Burton in the end condemns Joseph and kills the tree before taking off with his wife and children to build a house elsewhere.  He is almost apologetic before he leaves in his judgemental doings, telling Thomas and Joseph he was too isolated at the claim and would be better off near people of his own beliefs.  None of the brothers come across in this book with even any color, when I think of them as I read or now, after I have finished the book.  I only remember them in black and white.   I remember all the book's characters as dull, with the exception of Rama, Thomas's wife.

Joesph takes a wife, Elizabeth, who grew up with a mean spirited father in Monterrey, before she became a school teacher where Joseph found her and courted her.    She is much like Joseph and with him, freed of constrained beliefs that bound her before.

After the tree dies, the story turns darker.  Joseph is keenly in touch with the land, the weather and its animals.  This is a story of farmer, a rancher, whose success and failure depend on his skills reading the land and the sky.  He was told when he made his claim about the dry years.  He lives in worry that they will come.  After the tree dies, and after Burton leaves, the dry years come, scorching the earth, and taking all life from it.  Their hay is soon used up and the cattle are starving.

Elizabeth and he go for a ride to a glade.  She climbs a rock, chatting and happy, slips, and in one moment, breaks her neck and is gone.  Joseph, who is so disconnected from himself and the human world, carries her back to the settlement on his horse.  In one second, all the opinions, all the hopes and dreams, and past and skills and talk, all that was his wife is gone.  One simple slip and all that was Elizabeth is gone forever.

Elizabeth's character in the book, is the one most like a blooming flower, the only character that gives the reader some optimism about the story.  When she is crushed out, so is hope.  I thought of her as fresh water pouring into a moldy stagnant pool.  The brothers and their wives and children, so set in their own beliefs, gone sour with the stagnancy of their ways and thoughts.

Here is a quote from the book, that very much encompasses the reasons I like reading Steinbeck.  He has very briefly described Elizabeth's childhood and father, who is harsh.  She has studied to become a teacher and taken her county exams and has been quiet and stays shut up and silent near her outspoken angry father.  The quote:  "it was a decent means of leaving her home, and her town where people knew her too well; a means of preserving the alert and shatterable dignity of a young girl.  To the community where she was sent, she was unknown and mysterious and desirable.....The people among whom she went to live did not know her baby name".  So Steinbeck, in three paragraphs, describes how she was, how she left that fate, and pursued another, how she became someone else entirely, exactly who or what, was up to her, in a community where she was not known.  He is adept at deep character creation in very little space!

Later on in the book, Joseph will ask Elizabeth if she thinks much anymore, about the books she's read or all the things she learned in school.  And she will respond that she doesn't, that she just lives now, and thinks about her tasks at hand or things she sees in front of her.

Rama, Thomas' wife, is a gypsy by nature, with deep homey earth skills and has recognized Joseph for what he is from the beginning, his pagan beliefs and deep connection to the earth.  She is similar in her beliefs but they are not born of need to connect with the land as are Josephs'.  Her beliefs are more passed down, as women give birth and talk, and superstitious connections are made up to exist merely through coincidence of occurrence.

Rama is like the rock of the story.  I knew she would not be killed off and could not be.  She was the interesting solid steady side character and while Joseph's beliefs got the better of him, I knew all along Rama's would not. She is well-grounded in the needs of reality.

At the end of the book, all has been lost.  Thomas has driven the cattle far towards the coast in attempts to save some of the herd from starvation.  He is gone with his family, and the hired Vaqueros.  The claim and its barns, once high in hay, its gardens lush in vegetables, and its once filled houses, all empty, in ruin--deserted.  Joseph has been swallowed by his ritualized beliefs and dies at his own hand.  His suicide he justifies with his  beliefs. But his end really comes as all his hope fades.  He is unable to disconnect his beliefs from life reality  or find a way forward once they have failed him.

The book is dark and distant from its own characters.  Belief systems, from paganism, to Christianity to Catholicism are portrayed as arising from various needs, hopes and fears, either individual or group and though different, conceived for similar reasons.  They are useless in the end, as tools to manipulate greater forces and fate.

When I'm in the mood, to curl up, on a stormy night, wrapped in a blanket with a cup of tea or hot cocoa nearby, and reach for a good story book, I'll bypass To a God Unknown and grab Cannery Row or Tequila Flats instead.

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