Although to younger readers, Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice And Men might be more well known, this was the book that the author felt was his master work.
It’s the story of the Trask and Hamilton families, who live and grow in the Salinas Valley in California, the place that Steinbeck hailed from. Originally the book was addressed in tone to his nephews, and there are some passages that refer to the narrator as himself. But largely the book follows broader themes.
Opening in the late 1800’s, Adam and Charles are two half brothers raised by their father, a man who raises them for the military. Whilst Adam respects but does not love his father, his parents high regard for him is a wedge between him and his brother. This theme of Cain and Abel is repeated with his own sons later. Adam meets and marries Cathy, an amazing and horrible character, a woman without conscience, not afraid to murder to get what she wants, and revelling in destroying others.
The other family are the Hamiltons, with Samuel at the head, an Irish born man with big ideas, a big family and very little money. His seven children all vary in temperament, and their fates are part of the story.
The novel often focuses on religious themes, particularly the story of Cain and Abel. The idea of sibling rivalry, jealousy and the importance of having the love of the people you care about, whether that’s your parent or your spouse. It also offers historical vignettes and details of the life in Salinas.
For me, what set it apart from a straight family saga was Catharine. She feels like an unusual character. I sociopath, she is unable to feel love for other people, and delights in manipulating those she sees as weak, wounding them. But she’s not one dimensional. She’s very clever, and has her own emotional complications, wants, needs. She drives the narrative for some of the characters, as the idea of her that they want to believe and the ability to see her for who she is can be very painful. I also like the way that those that recognise her nature often do so because they see something of her in themselves. We all have the capacity for evil, but she doesn’t have the capacity for good.
I really enjoyed the history in this book, the tone, and seeing where all the characters end up, and then where their children end up. I also liked Lee, the Chinese man who works for Adam and pretends to speak pidgin English since stupidity is what’s expected of him. He’s a delightful character. There’s a great deal of emotion, philosophy and drama in this book, it’s very good.
Read It If: you like family sagas or you want to read about Cathy, the murdering, adultering woman. She’s really something.