Thursday, August 18, 2011

Classics Circuit Tour: The Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck

Author: John Steinbeck
Originally Published: 1932
Length: 240 pages
Source: Library
Challenge/Event:  Classics Circuit Tour

Personal Enjoyment Factor: 4/5

Welcome to the next stop of the Steinbeck TourThe Pastures of Heaven is the first of Steinbeck's California works, set in the farm country near his hometown of Salinas.  Published in 1932, this work precedes his popularity and financial success, but introduces the reader to Steinbeck's style and the genesis of the themes that he explores in later, better-known novels.  In this collection of short stories, we meet a community of families living in a beautiful verdant valley full of promise, finding that life can be rather ugly, and their own imperfections and the pressures to conform to society don't help at all.

The most pivotal family in the region is the Munroe family, after their acquisition of the Battle Farm, which is believed by neighbors to be cursed or haunted.  Its previous occupants include an epileptic wife (who goes insane), her dour husband (who dies, simply of old age and a cough), their fanatically religious son (who gets bitten by a snake while trying to cast the devil out of it), and a reclusive family who disappears without a trace leaving a table set with moldy food and the rest of the house cleared of the furniture.  The people of the Pastures of Heaven look upon the abandoned, run-down house with wariness and superstition: 
 "It's good land," they said, "but I wouldn't own it if you gave it to me.  I don't know what's the matter, but there's sure something funny about that place, almost creepy.  Wouldn't be hard for a fellow to believe in haunts"'(12).

Imagine the talk when the Munroe family buys the farm and settles down in the area!  Defying his own previous bad luck and the expectations of the community, Burt Munroe becomes prosperous and optimistic, even popular.  Chatting with the farmers, Burt proposes that maybe his own curse and the Battle Farm curse fought each other and killed each other off.  Clever idea.  But one guy has a better one:
"Maybe your curse and the farm's curse has mated and gone into a gopher hole like a pair of rattlesnakes.  Maybe there'll be a lot of baby curses crawling around the Pastures first thing we know"(19).
How inventive these farmers are!  Not to mention foreshadowing that bonks you on the head and propels you to read on.   What follows is a collection of stories (or as Steinbeck describes them, "tiny novels"), each depicting a different family living in the Pastures, touched in some inadvertent, but disastrous way by those "lucky" Munroes.

Besides being engaging stories with superb characterizations and vivid descriptions of the setting, this short-story cycle is exciting to read because within are found the origins of Steinbeck's most powerful themes and landscapes that emerge in later and more celebrated works.  Included is a cast of flawed characters struggling against forces out of their control.  Their dreams and self-delusions crumble in the face of reality.  Even in a place with the such a promising name, the Pastures of Heaven offers little solace and satisfaction to its residents.

It's always a little scary for me to read the earlier work of a beloved author and risk disappointment,  but in this case my fears were unfounded.  I enjoyed it mostly for its entertainment value and its ironic, darkly humorous tone.  Steinbeck himself has this to say about The Pastures of Heaven:
". . .Of anything I have ever tried, I am fondest of these and more closely tied to them.  There is no grand writing nor any grand theme, but I love the stories very much."
I loved the stories very much as well, but I disagree with him about the writing and theme--I don't know about "grand" but both can surely be found in satisfying quantities within this short-story collection.  



  1. I haven't read this one. Steinbeck has such a unique and truly American voice, I've enjoyed all of his books, but his shorter ones (The Pearl, etc.) I'll have to pick this one up too.

  2. I've not read this one but I've enjoyed the other Steinbeck books I've read and this one sounds worth reading.

  3. Gosh, I read this when I was a teenager and can still remember the cover of the book. Wish I still had it. Excellent review. Time for me to revisit Mr. S.

  4. I read this in college and remember loving it. I think it's time for a re-read!

  5. I haven't read these stories but it sounds like I should! Thanks!

  6. Good post! I wasn't familiar with this work of Steinbeck's at all, but I'm going to add it to my list of short story books for next summer's Short Story Daily project.

  7. I have only read The Grapes of Wrath by him and I enjoyed it. This sounds interesting too.

  8. I love the sound of this one! I actually haven't heard of it before, but it sounds like something I would enjoy. I am relatively new to Steinbeck, so I feel like I am slowly discovering how wonderful he is. :)

  9. Hi Kim. Hope you don't mind my asking, what's the short story daily project?

  10. I was glad to stumble upon your blog. I just started a Steinbeck reading plan: reading 3 biographies and his Life in Letters in concert, and inserting the fiction I can find more or less in date order. Just finished Pastures and appreciate your notes.

  11. I too am so worried about reading lesser known works by authors I love! I'm glad to hear that Steinbeck doesn't disappoint.

  12. I worry too about reading early works from my favorite authors. I'm glad this one didn't disappoint. I love that the idea of the short stories all interconnecting with the one family. I'll definitely pick this one up. He is one amazing writer!

  13. I'm a great fan of Steinbeck and as you said, Pastures of Heaven did not disappoint.

  14. I love short stories, especially those related by theme or venue into a collection, and so this sounds like a good fit for me. I really enjoyed your review of this lesser known collection.

    >Included is a cast of flawed characters struggling against forces out of their control. Their dreams and self-delusions crumble in the face of reality.

    Nicely put!

  15. I hadn't heard of this book before but I love Steinbeck and short stories so I'm definitely going to read it. Thanks.