This is the last book in my series of five that was part of the Winter Reading Challenge and although it was almost the longest it was a great book to finally read. John Steinbeck is known for his gritty portrayals of life in California during the depression but this is set in an earlier time and as a result the great theme is not poverty and struggle but love.
The mammoth book is best split into three parts for the ease of explaining the plot:
The book evolves around two families, the Hamilton’s and the Trask’s, with the first section of the book focusing on the Trask brothers Adam and Charles and their father and step mother. The brothers grow up with a strained relationship that improves after their father dies but then falls apart after Adam falls in love with a stranger who comes to the house and marries her making Cathy his wife and then moves away to California and settles in the Salinas valley.
California – The farm
What Adam doesn’t know is that Cathy does not feel love and is a killer and she only stays with him long enough to give birth to twins, shoot him in the arm and leave him. By this time Adam has purchased a farm in the Salinas valley and made friends with Samuel Hamilton, an aging Irish immigrant who is a wise friend and helps him name the twins after Cain and Abel – Caleb and Aaron. The other main character is the Chinese servant Lee who makes friends with Samuel and grows to become a steadfast companion to Adam. As the boys grow and Adam mourns for Cathy he is forced to come out of his daze confronted by the truth that Cathy has now become Kate and runs a brothel in Salinas. Samuel is weakened by the news that one of his daughters has died and he never really recovers and his children plan to get him to leave the ranch but each reacts differently to his character and his love with some following his way – Joe in particular – while others become successful being the opposite – notably Will.
The family move there and Adam becomes free of Cathy after realising that she is more afraid of him than she is of her. He develops an interest in the town and invests in a business that fails and as a result the boys are subjected to teasing which hurts Aron more than Cal, who is more like his mother. An uneasy relationship between the father and sons is going well until Cal surprises his father with money to cover his losses from the business venture and Adam rejects the money, although importantly not him. Cal takes his revenge by introducing Aron him to his mother leading his brother enlisting to fight in the First World War and ultimately to die in battle. The book ends with a very moving moment when Adam, who has suffered a stroke after the news of Aron’s death, is asked to forgive his son Cal. His father does it handing his son the chance to have a future free of the guilt of the past.
Is it well written?
Because of the size of the book, 728 pages, it is a bit of a slow burner and it sometimes feels strange to get introduced to the Hamilton’s and then not read about them again for several chapters. In the second half of the book the central theme of examining what happens when there is blind love, no love or unrequited love becomes clear and the book really starts to hit its stride when there are just about 250 pages left to go. The problem with the start is that some people will walk away from this book because it doesn’t grab them and because the dust jacket, which describes it as a case of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel does simplify things slightly. But Steinbeck has an ability to describe the power of a glance, thought or expression in a away that most writers can only aspire to. This is also a semi-autobiographical story because John Steinbeck is in the book as a child and if this is right Samuel Hamilton was his grandfather. That sensitivity to telling a family story also shows through with the style – it was a book that clearly mattered to him and he is quoted as saying it was the book that all the others had been preparing him for.
IS it worth reading?
Please stick with it and the answer is a resounding yes but it takes some patience and concentration, because some themes echo throughout the book. It is also about prejudice not just racial, which is demonstrated by Lee who after coming out as an equal is then treated badly by the nurse at the end providing a sharp reminder of his status, but about the fundamental questions of good and evil. On a personal level it made me think about how I treat my two sons and how my reactions to those moments when they try to impress me are crucial.
Version read – Penguin paperback
A large number of people rate Steinbeck very highly and you think you know why after reading Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath but there is an attention to human emotions in East of Eden that surpasses those and reminds me a bit of the lump-in-throat inducing end of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is also a study in the relationships between children and fathers and friends.
Bullet points between 676 – 728
* Adam has a minor stroke after receiving Aron’s telegram telling him that he has enlisted and he is not to worry and for a while is very ill being nursed by Lee who becomes a minor expert on cerebral haemorrhages
* Cal blames himself for his brother’s decision but is tamed from becoming truly evil by Abra who reveals that her father is going to jail for corporate fraud and that she is far from perfect and is in love with Cal
* Then the inevitable happens and the telegram comes informing them of Aron’s death and it forces Adam to have a full-blown stroke and in his grief Cal admits he took Aron to meet Kate and that led to him joining the army
* In a very moving scene Lee gets Cal and Abra to come to Adam’s bedside and Lee begs for Adam to forgive his son and bless him and he does uttering the word “Timshel” Hebrew for thou mayest an echo throughout the second half of the book meaning that he forgives him not because he has to but because he can
I’m not ashamed to say that I had tears in my eyes at the ending and put the book down and saw Steinbeck in a different light. Wrongly I thought he specialised in writing about people down on their luck but here was a story all about love, in all its forms, and the writing was weighted just right and the attention to the human condition in places amazing. Review in the next couple of days…
There are less than 100 pages left and the tension is building as this book reaches its climax and some characters decide its all too much and opt to go and meet their maker rather than hang around until the end.
Bullet points between pages 578 – 676
* Kate becomes obsessed by Ethel and pays Joe to go and find her in a bid to silence her but Joe guesses that there is something he can use here so lies to Kate about where Ethel has gone planning to get contol of the brothel eventually off her
* Meanwhile Aron has become devoted to the church but takes his exams early and goers to college and Cal forms a partnership with Will Hamilton to try and buy his father’s love by getting his money back that he lost on the frozen cabbage venture
* Aron puts Abra on a pedestal and she feels like falling off to make sure that what he has fallen in love with is more reality than a dream and talks to Lee about their relationship but still expects to become his wife
* Aron goes to college but is homesick and comes home for Thanksgiving braced to tell his father that he wants to drop out but instead finds the family and its expectations too much but Cal is hoping to win the day by handing out $15,000 to his father
* Adam refuses the money and tells Cal, who has made it selling beans for the soldiers in France, that he is exploiting the war and the farmers and upsets his son who in his anger takes Aron to meet Kate
* The next day a heartbroken Aron enlists and Kate who is surrounded by people she fears and mistrusts decides to take her own life leaving everything to Aron but before she goes she shops Joe to the police and when they come foe him the next day he dies after being shot while trying to escape
What will happen to Adam, Lee, Aron and Cal? The final chunk of the book will have the answers…
As the book starts to move towards its end it becomes clear that it is all about love – the powder of it, the consequences of the absence of it and the yearning for it – and Cathy becomes part of the story again because she signifies what happens when you are completely absent of love.
This is also a book written with a great deal of love, of the past and of family, and it comes across on every page and because of that you trust things will be okay even when Cathy is at her most deranged and desperate.
Bullet points between pages 503 – 578
* Having moved to Salinas the boys start school and it comes time for Lee to leave and open his bookstore in San Francisco but he returns suffering from loneliness and spends a lot of time and a fair amount of money doing up the house
* In the meantime Adam has become fixated on freezing vegetables and against the advice of business guru Will Hamilton buys the local refrigeration company and sends some cabbages to New York but because of transport problems the plan is a failure
* The boys feel that their father has failed, lost lots of money and become a laughing stock in the town and Aron, who is seriously involved with Abra his girlfriend plans to move away while Cal starts to hunt for his mother
* He discovers his mother is known as Kate and running a brothel and starts to follow her and lets Lee know that he has discovered the truth and then one night he is caught by the police at a gambling den and his father gets to sit down with him alone
* Adam shows Cal love and the boy reacts to it and blurts out about his mother and Adam asks him to never tell his brother about it and shortly afterwards Cal meets Kate and confronts her accusing her of being afraid
* Kate has become afraid – afraid that people might do to her what she has done to others – and she retreats into a grey world of complete mistrust and is rocked by the meeting with Cal who comes away strong and determined to help Aron through college and his father to revive his fortunes
Steinbeck has the ability to bring a lump to your throat and a smile to your face sometimes in unison but always at the right time. Powerful stuff as characters struggle with hate, love and loneliness.
Bullet points between pages 402 – 502
* After his visit Adam comes back and shows an interest in his boys, which is the first time they have been really discussed in the story so far, and history seems to be repeating itself with Cal the dark menacing one and Aron the Adam junior
* Adam decides to write to his brother Charles and Lee asks him if he can leave to open a bookstore in San Francisco and it seems that Adam will be given a chance to rediscover the things lost in his decade of mourning for Cathy
* A letter is returned to him with a note from the lawyers saying that Charles has died and left his money to be split between Adam and Cathy which forces a reunion of the husband and wife in which Adam exposes her inability to believe in love
* Following Samuel’s death the Hamilton family settle in to their respective lives with Tom left at the ranch being eaten up with loneliness but he perks up when his sister Dessie sells her house in town to Adam and moves back home
* But Dessie is ill and just as they plan to travel Europe and escape for a life of adventure she takes a turn for the worst and in response, because by giving her salts Tom believes he killed her, the lonely son decides to take his own life
If that final few chapters fails to leave you with a tear in the eye then you must be made of tin. More tomorrow…
The parts of the book describing the departure of Samuel Hamilton are very moving and he departs having shaken Adam out of his reverie once more and moved the story on regarding Cathy
Bullet points between pages 346 – 401
* The Hamilton’s all get together for Thanksgiving, including their daughter Olive who happens to be married to Ernest Steinbeck the narrator’s father, and they decide that Samuel needs to be taken away from the farm
* Samuel understands all too well what is happening and one by one visits his friends to bid them farewell saving Adam for last and he finds the 11 year old twins growing but Adam still stuck in the past so he tells him about Cathy running a whorehouse
* Samuel dies and his funeral is held in the town of Salinas and Adam, fuelled by drink, goes and has it out with Cathy and as her anger mounts he emerges from a dream and realises that he is free of her and heads back to his land happier than he has been for years
Is that the end of Cathy? Will her anger follow him? What next for the Hamilton’s after Samuel’s death? All the questions will be answered in the next few days as I get to the end of this engaging book…
A terrible day on the reading front because I couldn’t find the book for many hours and so the page count is very low but it is still worth posting because the side story, that of the Hamilton’s as told by the grandson of Samuel, who is the narrator, develops
Bullet points between pages 312 – 346
* Samuel visits Adam and beats him out of his trance and they name the boys Caleb and Aaron and Adam seems to be starting to think of life beyond Cathy
* The story then shifts to focusing on Tom, as told through the eyes of his nephew, who loves his visits and recalls the times they went fishing together but Tom seems to be unsatisfied despite his talent