Tuesday, February 14, 2012
book review: To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck
There is a tension in this book from start to finish. A sense of expectation and dread that Steinbeck manages to heighten and lessen but always keep there to come centre stage when the moment requires.
Joseph Wayne starts the story telling his father he wants to head West and stake his land while he still can in the land rush that is spreading across California. He leaves behind three brothers who he believes will present too much competition for the land.
So already there is tension about land ownership and although this disappears when Joseph sets up his own farm there is the threat, casually dropped by the natives to the area, that the area is prone to drought. That tension grips the farmer and returns again and again to haunt him. But as long as he has the tree, which he believes is the home of the spirit of his dead father, life seems to be okay.
He invites his brothers out to stay on the land and the homestead grows to become a real family plot. Joseph even marries and fathers a child but that sense of impending doom always hovers over the land. Joseph is not the only one who reverts to home made religions to try and master the elements and even the priest comes across as a figure that walks the line between established religion and a knowledge and even partial sympathy for pagan ways.
But you always sense that the darkest fear Joseph is struggling with will come to pass and at that point this mixture of homemade religion and the influence of desperation and even madness combine to bring the book to a powerful conclusion.
What Steinbeck underlines is the relationship between man and the land and the elements. Just as a sailor can try to understand the sea but cannot tame it the farmers struggle with the lack of rain and the heat. They can prepare for the worst but they cannot stop it.
That strain puts a great deal of pressure onto the characters and they respond differently. The three brothers all have their coping mechanisms but it is the decision of Joseph, as the head of the family, that you focus on. You never feel easy reading this book because that sense of tension is always there.