I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea and they were dark and brooding – unfriendly and dangerous. I always found myself in a dread of west and a love of east.

In this novel, Steinbeck weaves the history of his own maternal family (the Hamiltons) and the place where he was born (the Salinas valley in northern California) into a fiction, a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel. The central character, Adam Trask, re-enacts that brotherly rivalry with his brother Charles: Adam is better loved by his father; Charles takes his revenge. In the next generation, Adam’s sons Cal and Aron follow that same pattern: Aron is better loved; Cal takes his revenge; and there is even a version of “am I my brother’s keeper?” worked in, somewhat inelegantly (the only inelegant thing, I think).

It is often said that this is a book about good and evil. I suppose it is, but primarily to me it was a book about redemption. A major theme is signified by the Hebrew word timshel, translated in the book as “thou mayest”. The point is, that this is what God says to Cain when he puts his mark upon him – not that you MUST overcome sin, not that you WILL overcome sin, but that you MAY. Must implies obligation, will implies inevitability but may implies choice. Timshel is a word of blessing which offers not a command or a predetermination, but hope and freedom – the possibility of true redemption.

Finally, I can’t let this book go without talking of sinful women, the Eves.

Adam’s mother abandoned him by committing suicide immediately after his birth. His stepmother (Charles’ mother) was a sick, passive woman who did what was required to survive her loveless existence, and no more. Adam’s wife, Cathy, the mother of Cal and Aron, was a more actively sinful woman. She is described variously as a monster, as missing some essential human quality, as impenetrable, as inhuman. Her sins are many and shocking, the primary among them (plotwise) being that she abandons her twins immediately after their birth and runs away to become a whore.

The only other women to really feature in the story are Liza Hamilton (Steinbeck’s grandmother) and Abra (Aron’s and later Cal’s sweetheart, of whom her father frequently says: I called another, but Abra came – meaning, he wanted a boy). I see these women as Rebecca figures – assertive, moral women, but women who ultimately submit unquestioningly to male headship.

There is no depth to these women. There is no reality to them. There is a certain note struck in the sketches, a certain likeness to an underlying reality, but no interest in their stories or to what shaped them. Indeed of Cathy we are repeatedly told that there is no possibility of understanding her, not even for the author who created her and who therefore knows what happened to her from the day she was born. The author cannot understand her, and so she cannot be understood. Or redeemed: Steinbeck puts the mark of Cain upon her, yet she is Eve, and for her there is no redemption.

One more thing. There is another character, Lee, a Chinese servant to the Trask family whose wisdom, learning and care nourishes them throughout, in some ways replacing the absent mother figure. Perhaps I am struggling to hard to fit him into the Biblical theme, but I see him with his ng-ka-py as a kind of Holy Spirit, an intermediary between what is, and what ought to be – perhaps a kind of angel.

Hmm. Overall, a fine novel – if you like to have your men at the centre, and if Steinbeck’s portrayal of whores (as, on the whole, willing sluts doing a job of work) does not make your my skin crawl.

Here is an Amazon link.
I already had a copy, although I had not read it until now.

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