If there are two things that John Steinbeck does really well it’s being able to describe a time and landscape in American history and combine that with an incredibly strong observation of human emotions.
In this short book it is the later skill that is at the fore although you are reminded yet again of the hardship of those living off the land in the Californian valleys in the pre-war years. This is a time pre-television and motorised transport for the masses where life was lived in a much more confined environment. As a result the relationships between father and son, husband and wife and friend and friend are critical.
There are four chapters in this book and each one stands alone. There are connected by the four characters of Jody, Billy the ranch hand and Jody’s father and mother and the location of the family ranch but each chapter could be a short story on its own.
In just shy of 100 pages Steinbeck deals with the big concepts of trust, promises and maturity. The result is that you are asked some pretty interesting questions and wondering just who is the more mature out of a boy on the cusp of becoming a teenager or a father who should know a lot better.
Starting with the tale of the Red Pony the boy Jody is given his first real possession of value in the Pony, and rather than having to wait until his father decides he has earnt it, a surprise arrives and he seizes the chance to prove he is worthy of it. Looking after the pony, grooming it and making sure it is healthy becomes a joyful obsession. When it rains for a week he keeps the pony indoors and then he finally lets him out and asks Billy to take the pony in if it rains. He promises that not only will he take the pony in but also it will not rain. He fails on both promises and then has to watch as the pony dies slowly.
The morale of that story is all about promises and reminded me of something I was once told when I became an uncle, something that happened before becoming a father. I was told that if you say those words ‘I promise’ to a child then it is a bond that is almost magical in its commitment and if broken then it is a terrible thing. The problem is that it is easy to utter the words ‘I promise’.
After the disappointment of the pony there comes a chance to raise a colt but although wary of uttering another promise he cannot keep Billy ends up getting carried away with his own ability as a horseman. When the time comes for the mare to give birth things do go wrong and Billy has to kill the mare to save the colt. The promise is made good but at a cost that takes away any feeling of joy over the birth.
Then the other two chapters deal with the relationship between young and old and the question of limited horizons. Jody becomes interested in what lies over the mountainous horizon. But every time he asks his father about it he is pushed away from the subject. Finally a stranger comes from the mountains and informs the family he used to live in the land and has come to die in his home. Jody’s father makes it clear that the old man is not welcome. He is rude to the point of talking about putting him down along with the old mare in the field. But Jody shows an interest in him, a willingness to listen and learn. But it is too late and stealing the old mare – an equally decrepit and insulted animal – the man heads for the mountains to finish off his life on his own terms.
Finally Jody’s grandfather turns up and starts to tell stories he has clearly gone through a million times before. Jody is excited at him coming and listens but his father insults the old man and in a show of immaturity ends the charade that had been carried on for the last few visits providing the old man with the impression that his family were listening and cared. In the end the immature ranch owner exits with Billy and it is left to the young by Jody to show the compassion to help the injured grandfather by showing an interest and showing an empathy that is far beyond the rough ranch owner.
What the Red Pony proves is that when there is great writing there can be a great deal dais with few words. The depth of human emotions from grief, anger and petulance are all eternal and can echo through the ages making the ranch, the location and the period irrelevant. This book is about the basic human condition and as a result will last.
Version read – Penguin paperback