This second book that John Steinbeck published is quite extraordinary. What starts off as a simple, restrained read becomes something else – a shocking tale about how seemingly small life events can shape destinies and impact community.
In this collection of interwoven short stories, we meet two generations of farming families who call the pastures of heaven, an idyllic Californian valley, home. They come for a fresh start, a place to heal, lay roots and prosper.
And then one family changes everything.
Bert Munroe escapes to the valley to exorcise the curse of financial failure. He purchases a rundown property which he renovates before his family arrive. Although the place is supposedly cursed, Bert is determined to succeed and is quickly accepted by the locals.
What Steinbeck does next is move backwards and forwards in time and introduce a motley group of characters: Edward Wicks, who dupes everyone into believing he is rich; children who are deformed or have a mental illness; dreamer Junius Maltby and his young son; the Lopez sisters who set up a restaurant from home for men who love Mexican food, plus something on the side; enthusiastic Molly Morgan starting out as a teacher; Raymond Banks, the successful poultry farmer who attends hangings; bachelor farmer Pat Humbert who wants to impress a girl and the Whiteside dynasty, the elders of the community.
These folk, who get on with life as best as they can, carry their foibles lightly. Until they come into contact with Bert Monroe, his wife, daughter Mae or son Jimmie, who unwittingly shame them and expose painful truths, with devastating consequences. As a reader I become increasingly anxious for these families. I know they face danger, yet am unprepared for what follows.
The Pastures of Heaven is striking because we can’t help caring about these farmers. How will they regroup? Can this community continue as it once did?
On another level, we see Steinbeck finding his voice as an author. He writes sensitive depictions of simple people facing difficult situations, a theme he revisits in The Grapes of Wrath and elsewhere. How terrific that the seed has been planted in this modest book so early in his career.