The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay. I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer—and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.
The other day, I combed through my bookshelf, looking for something impalpable. A book that was meaningful without the forced dramatism of modern novels. A literary classic, perhaps, but without the translation troubles of Homer or Dostoyevsky. There was only one solution: Steinbeck. This summer I had the pleasure of reading The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer-Prize winning tale of the Joads; The Pearl and Of Mice and Men are among my favourites. Unbeknownst to me, my bookshelf also contained a beautiful centennial edition of East of Eden, a novel I now consider the pinnacle of literary brilliance.
When reading Steinbeck, many are deterred by the slow-paced, rambling descriptions of valleys or meadows, his seemingly incessant need to describe every field in rural America, but in my opinion, the careful elaborations on the settings are what distinguish his novels from others. The characters in his books are products of their homes and inextricably tied to the valleys from which they originate—in East of Eden, the Salinas Valley and its natural features are the foundation for the community that is established there, and the pages of description of its natural features is what gives relevance and meaning to the lives of its inhabitants. The backdrop of the mountainous valley underpins the book’s narrative about human morality and adversity.
The other thing I love about East of Eden and Steinbeck novels in general is the sweeping family history and the subtle commentary on human relationships. The Trasks and the Hamiltons are loosely based on the tale of Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, and gives a unique flavour to biblical stories. I’m personally not familiar with the biblical relevance of this book, but what I found interesting was the exploration of how identity is derived from family, community, and place of origin. More than anything, the characters are shaped from the places they come from and their family origins. In an era of moral individualism (which certainly has its merits) and globalization, we’ve maybe lost some of the importance of family legacies, ties to our origins, obligations to those who have come before and, equally, those who will continue our legacies.
Perhaps most importantly, the book is an interesting and inconclusive perspective on good and evil. The twins Cal and Aron (based upon Cain and Abel) are the generic polar-opposite siblings, one good, one evil. Through the course of the book, though, they take on new dimensions of personality and the lines of morality become blurred. The characters in the novel make difficult choices, some of which are correct, and many of which are morally ambiguous. This is a book about ambition, the pursuit of greatness, the power of choices, whether choices even really exist, and ultimately, the formation of identity.
Originally published in the Wolfington Post. Photo of the Salinas Valley from the New York Times.