John Steinbeck’s Pastures in Heaven
My Internet has been down for two days. Two days! It seemed like we would die. I could only check email on my phone (which is new, and I barely know how to use it), we had nothing to watch in the evenings because we watch everything on Netflix, and I couldn’t check flights or hotels for an upcoming conference I’m attending. It is amazing how attached we are to technology.
If I lived in John Steinbeck’s Pastures in Heaven (1932), however, none of this would have mattered. I came across this short story collection recently, and as I read, I kept saying to myself and my husband, “Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors.” It is like I had forgotten about him or something. And although that is a travesty, I am glad to still have so much of his work ahead of me. So far, of Steinbeck I have read Cannery Row, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl, The Winter of Our Discontent, and a short story called “The Chrysanthemums.”
I hope to read much more. Pastures in Heaven was one step in this direction. It, of course, takes place in a little valley called The Pastures of Heaven near Monterey and Carmel, California. Now, spent part of my childhood in the Bay Area of California and during one particular trip to Carmel with my dad as a teenager, I took a picture of my dream house there.
It stands on a ridge above the coast and has the perfect view of the ocean. Ah, I still wish I could live there. And reading Pastures in Heaven did not help to assuage my coveting of this house or this area at all.
The book is a series of loosely connect short stories about the town’s inhabitants. The tales are engrossing, heartbreaking, interesting, and simple. From the characters experiences, we learn that “It is a difficult thing and one requiring great tact quickly to become accepted in a rural community” (p. 15). I have experience with that as well, and it is so true. You can live in a place for ten years and still not be accepted. Or, you can still not accept the place as your home.
The town has the obligatory haunted house, in which many families try to live but ultimately fail. One of the house’s inhabitants is the Wicks family, and their daughter Alice, is dangerously beautiful. Her beauty is a curse, for it makes her father overly possessive and he warns her against kissing, especially with that Jimmie Monroe. Of course, upon being forbidden to do so, that is the only thing Alice wants to do. She begins dreaming about it and ultimately acts on it.
One of my favorite vignettes is when Mary Morgan applies to be the school teacher. She must first survive an interview with the school superintendent, a kind, white-haired man who invites her into his formidable office full of old classic books, wood furniture, and smoke from his pipe. As Mary tells about herself, she says the bare minimum, you know, the surface things. She says something about growing up poor, and Steinbeck then reveals, in italics, what that really means and what she is really thinking. It is the background information that accompanies any sort of declaration about ourselves but is never revealed in its full pain or glory. The truth of her story is revealed through these italicized sections of Mary’s short narrative about herself to the superintendent. As a reader, this information was like finding the last Easter egg or uncovering a golden treasure that nobody else has access to. Her story is fascinating and also catches up to her, but the way in which it is told is what endeared me to this particular chapter and to Steinbeck.
Each chapter is a treat. I highly recommend this book, especially if you like short stories. It has inspired me to keep dreaming about living in Carmel, oh, and to keep reading John Steinbeck!
Here are some other great lines from the book:
“After the bare requisites to living and reproducing, man wants most to leave some record of himself, a proof, perhaps, that he has really existed” (41).
“Helen, every man must some time or other want to beat a woman. I think I’m a mild man, but right now I want to beat your face with my fists” (51). I think every woman could say the same thing about men!
“The retrospection had almost killed her sense of peace” (58).
“I tell you women know more about themselves than doctors do” (150).
“Wait a little. No sorrow can survive the smothering of a little time” (152).