Friday, April 11, 2008

John Steinbeck

Selected works by John Steinbeck
Recommended Age: 12+

Many of this author’s books are required reading in American schools, so he probably does not need much introduction. Steinbeck was an author whose grimly realistic stories sympathized with the plight of poor, downtrodden people. It seems impossible that you could read one of his books and not be moved by the fate of its characters.

I’ve lost track of all the Steinbeck works that I have read over the years, but a few stand out in my memory.

Of Mice and Men is a tale that I particularly cherish, because I once lived near the part of California where it is set. Every time I drove down those dusty highways, lined with enormous walls built of bales of hay, I thought of this book’s two friends on the run from the law, trying to make a living as migrant farm workers. One of them is a very special (dangrously special) man named Lenny, whose fate you will never forget.

The Pearl is about the tragedy that befalls a young, Mexican pearl diver and his family, after he finds a pearl so big that it seems (at first) that their fortune is made. It’s amazing how costly a little success can be.

The Grapes of Wrath, compared to these other stories, is a huge novel about a family escaping starvation in Oklahoma during the time of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. You will feel every throb of the agony of these poor people as they try to find a fresh start in California. How many kinds of heartbreak would you like to read about? Stillborn children? One son running from a shotgun wedding, the other on the run from the law? A vivid depiction of what the Johnny Horton song means when it says, “I owe my soul to the company store”? Or even the remarkable chapter devoted to a tortoise’s attempt to crawl across the highway?

One of the ways literature is supposed to help young people grow is by teaching them to sympathize with the plights of others. These books will do that, definitely. They may even prompt some of you to grow up into political activists (though, for the record, I am not recommending them for that reason). Whatever else they teach you, though, I hope these books will prove to you that a story doesn’t have to be about a magical world to grab you.

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