Originally Published: 1932
Length: 240 pages
Challenge/Event: Classics Circuit Tour
Personal Enjoyment Factor: 4/5
Welcome to the next stop of the Steinbeck Tour! The 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.