When I was in high school, if you were to ask me who my favorite author was, hands down I would have told you John Steinbeck. It was no question. If you were then to ask me if I had read all of his books, the answer would have been a resounding “NO” that would land between us with a dull thud. That was because I was under the impression that if I read all of his books, I wouldn’t have anything else to look forward to. So, instead, I read the same handful of books again and again and again, savoring their sweetness and beauty, but not picking up anything new. Looking back on it now, it was a real shame not to read more when I had time to read. But, at the same time, I really loved rereading my favorites. Today, let’s look at some of the best of Steinbeck, including some of my favorites that I’ve read more times than I can say. As today is Steinbeck’s 120th birthday, perhaps consider checking out one of his many beautiful books. Steinbeck’s work is almost exclusively set in California, and are full of rich landscapes and even richer characters. I hope you enjoy.
I still vividly remember reading Of Mice and Men in my sophomore year Geometry class. Let me clarify–it was not assigned reading. I was just reading the book in Geometry class. And when I got to the infamous ending scene (which I had not seen coming, as I knew nothing about the book) I nearly started bawling right there in the middle of class. This now-iconic tale of two hired workers, George and Lennie, and the tragic dream they both cling to is at once powerful and beautifully sad. George is small and quick, Lennie is big and slow. And something happened at their last job, meaning that the two had to go on the run. Despite their lack of roots, the pair have a dream–to one day own their own farm where they don’t have to worry about being sent away, traveling from place to place. And Lennie, who cannot control his own strength, will have plenty of small, soft things to pet, without having to worry about hurting anyone. But, when tragedy strikes at their next assignment, everything the pair has been saving for and dreaming of is jeopardized.
“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream…” Steinbeck’s writing is pure poetry in what has to be my favorite of all his books. I absolutely love Cannery Row. The story follows a group of misfits and workers in the small California community. Henry the painter sorts through junk for wood scraps to build himself a boat, Lee Chong stocks his grocery with almost anything a man could want, and Doc, a young marine biologist ministers to the unhappy and broken people, and unexpectedly finds true love. During a drinking session, Mack, an aimless, unmotivated laborer and his friends, decide that the time has come to do something special for Doc, in light of all the good things he has done for them. And so, with the whole town eventually becoming involved, the group decides to throw him a “thank you” party in gratitude for his kindness. This warm and beautiful book focuses on accepting life as it comes, both in terms of the community you belong to, but also of one’s own inner life. If you enjoyed reading this book, consider checking out the sequel, Sweet Thursday.
In Tortilla Flat, which was considered Steinbeck’s first commercial success, he takes a ragtag group of paisanos, who spend their time living freely in a semi-homeless state, worrying only about food, wine, and ladies, and elevates their adventures and misadventures to the status of an Arthurian legend. This ragtag group first comes together when Danny, the unofficial leader, returns from World War I to find that his grandfather has left him two small houses. And it soon becomes clear to Danny and his friend Pilon that one man certainly doesn’t need two houses, so they decide to share. And soon Pilon is sharing his house, and more and more paisanos are added to the group, to share stories and shelter and wine. The stories are short and somewhat silly, but treated with a quiet dignity that makes them so much more. It’s a surprisingly beautiful book about incredibly ordinary people.
The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the story of the Joad family as they struggle for survival during the Great Depression and the devastating Dust Bowl. Forced to leave their Oklahoma homestead and travel west to the promised land of California, the family faces the harsh realities of America, from the staggering poverty to the powerful struggle of desperation and hope. This powerful American classic won Steinbeck a Pulitzer Prize and is considered a landmark of American literature. It’s a big book, clocking in at nearly 500 pages, making it tower over the other titles on this list, but it’s well worth the time, as nearly a century later, it still has the same power over its audience that it did in 1939.
A small coastal town is conquered by an invading army, as its location as a port with access to a large coal mine makes it indispensable. Colonel Lanser, the head of the invading battalion takes over the house of the popular Mayor Orden, making it the army’s new HQ. As the winter weather turns cold and bleak, the people of the town grow more and more agitated. Colonel Lanser, a veteran of many wars, tries to remain civil, but in his heart he know that there are no peaceful people” amongst the occupied and conquered. Alexander Morden, an alderman and “free man” is forced to work in the mines and kills one of the soldiers in retaliation. His execution causes something to break within the town, and the oppressed people begin plotting their revenge. Technology is sabotaged, soldiers who let down their guard are murdered, and when Lanser confronts Mayor Orden, he simply reminds the colonel that this goal “to break man’s spirit permanently” is impossible. The Moon is Down is a powerful tale of war and the human spirit’s will to survive against all odds.