If you went to high school before the standards dropped, ahhh…the 90s, then you probably read either Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath. They are OK are far as high school reading goes, i.e., a lot better than Billy Budd, Ethan Frome, and that awful Catcher in the Rye. So you left school with the feeling that Steinbeck is OK. There are worse.
John Steinbeck referred to East of Eden as his “big book” or masterpiece…and deservedly so. It is big, and it is packed with powerful description, history, character development and biblical parallels. This epic chronicles three generations of Steinbeck’s maternal ancestors, the Hamiltons, and the fictional Trasks (from our own little Nutmeg State, Connecticut….well not really.) And don’t forget, the unforgettable Lee, a West Coast, Chinese-American Mr. Carson jam-packed with philosophy.
The first question out of the box was why two stories in one book? Why not a straight Trask fiction and a separate book about his family, plus some artistic license sprinkled about. The answer is, the Hamiltions, with the exception Samuel, just don’t merit a stand-alone, historical non-fiction, and, with respect to our great state, the Trasks need the Hamilton’s Eden/Gomorrah-like Salinas Valley as a backdrop.
Cain and Abel, Cain is able…C & A. Charles and Adam. Caleb and Aron. Maybe Cyrus had a brother named Aloysius as well, undoubtedly East of Eden is chiefly known for its parallels to the story of Cain and Abel. Charles and Caleb are Cain…and in some fashion so is Cathy, who is Caleb’s mother…probably via Charles, thereby making Caleb a Mega-Cain, but for Timshel. Both parents, who bear the mark of Cain on their foreheads, also produce a mini-Adam via their recessive genes in person of Aron. There are other parallels for the readers’ entertainment, e.g., who works the field, who is Dad’s favorite, etc…
During our discussion, the Brothers spent some time on Original Sin and the consequence of ill-begotten wealth. Subsequently discussed events that caused characters to just jump completely out of character, e.g., the two female suicides. Entertained a conspiracy theory that Liza was pregnant with George, forcing Samuel to make an honest woman of her and them both to flee an intensely Catholic Ireland. We imagined the warmth of a few whiskeys around the anvil, the taste of ng-ka-py and a room full of ancient Chinese guys studying 16-Hebrew verses in heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. One Brother even jettisoned Pamela Anderson and W.C. Fields off their list of The Three People You Would Like To Have Dinner With, and put Samuel Hamilton and Lee at the table with Hulk Hogan. Powerful stuff.
Thou mayeth read other books. Thou mayeth read other Steinbeck books. Thou mayeth be an idiot if thou musteth and pass on East of Eden. It won’t care. It’s amazing and very secure in that fact.
FYI…Google can be great. Tooling around for images of the area returned this travelogue of a trip to the Hamilton Farm. The photo here was lifted from this post. You should look this as well…tough farming.