Until this week, it had been decades since I had read anything by John Steinbeck, and then it was only under duress.
Well, sort of. 🙂 My introduction to Steinbeck was probably The Red Pony, possibly in junior high school, but I don’t remember reading it then. (I have a slight recollection of reading it in college.) Fast forward to eleventh grade AP English summer reading. My assignment was to read The Grapes of Wrath, and I remember taking it with me on vacation with my best friend’s family and slogging through it as we traversed the hairpin curves of the Ozark Mountains. I also remember being totally shocked and turned off by the profane language in the novel. This obviously didn’t scar me too badly since I went on to take many, many more literature classes and eventually became an English teacher myself. (I was leery of American literature for a long time after that, though.)
Fast forward several decades to 2016. I decided to add a little Steinbeck to my girls’ world geography studies because I knew they could handle reading what is considered a classic work by a classic author. I’m having them read it slowly, at the rate of a chapter a day. (Both girls read a lot and quickly, so I have to force them to take it slowly.) I finished it this morning, just a few days ahead of my girls. While I don’t exactly regret assigning it to them (and actually, eleven year old Louise has already read it, along with a couple of Steinbeck’s other novellas), I can say it’s one of those novels that is considered a classic for a reason: it deals with the big questions of life in a way that is thought-provoking and sophisticated. My girls are both fairly mature, but they lack the life experience that adults would bring to this novel. (Welcome to the Great Conversation, girls.) That’s what makes a classic a classic, in my opinion: it tackles big, timeless issues.
The story itself is fairly simple: Kino and Juana and their baby, Coyotito, live a simple life in a thatch hut somewhere near the gulf (of Mexico). Their life is simple and peaceful, characterized by what Kino calls (in his mind) the Song of Family. However, the complication comes early in this short novel, with Coyotito being stung by a scorpion. Because this sort of wound can be life-threatening for one so young, Kino and Juana do the only things they know to do: care for him as best they can and seek the help of the doctor. The doctor, a selfish, stuck up, prig of a man, refuses to treat Coyotito because Kino cannot pay him. Kino, desperate to find money, takes to the oyster beds where he discovers a large pearl–the Pearl of the World. With this pearl comes hope, but so many other things, too: jealousy, anger, greed, discontentment, violence, and even death. The story ends tragically, as one might expect for such a tale.
So many themes and motifs make up this little book: the idea of progress versus a more “natural” way of living; good versus evil; the outsider versus the native; education versus ignorance; and so on. Steinbeck’s style of writing hardly needs any introduction or commentary by me, but I did note a few passages that I thought were particularly striking. This is one.
It is wonderful the way a little town keeps track of itself and of all its units. If every single man and woman, child and baby, acts and conducts itself in a known pattern and breaks no walls and differs with no one and experiments in no way and is not sick and does not endanger the ease and peace of mind or steady and unbroken flow of the town, then that unit can disappear and never be heard of. But let one man step out of the regular thought or the known and trusted pattern, and the nerves of the townspeople ring with nervousness and communication travels over the nerve lines of the town. Then every unit communicates to the whole. (41)
That paragraph alone would provide fodder for much discussion. This is a simple novel through which to think about some big themes. I’m glad I re-read it.
The Pearl is my first read of 2017 and also my first completed title for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.