Monday, 3 April 2017

To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck

I feel like I start a lot of reviews these days by explaining how and why I picked a particular book up, and I'm not sure it's useful to anyone else, but it's certainly useful to me. I like to be able to trace back where each book came from. So, in that vein, this book came as part of an experiment I've been doing with the database NoveList, which I like for a lot of reasons. To be precise, I'm taking books I've really loved from previous years and looking at their "read-alike" recommendations.

Sometimes, this is a massive misfire, as a few of the surrounding details might be similar, but the tone so different that the read-alike book does little for me. (This happened the time that The Magicians led to The Murdstone Trilogy.) This time, though, the likeness is a little less obvious but feels more profound. To A God Unknown was the recommended read-alike for Lila, a book I entirely and completely adored. It's an interesting choice - in some ways, The Grapes of Wrath feels like the Steinbeck that might have popped up as a result, as both have characters who travel out of extreme poverty, sometimes looking for agricultural work.

In contrast to Grapes of Wrath, To A God Unknown is about a settled family in California, moving from New England to the rich fields of California in a time of plenty, and then leads through a time of famine. It is also a mingling of belief in various forces unknown and deep connection to the land.

Joseph, the main character, is the first to go west, which he does before his father dies. He finds a land of plenty and homesteads, discovering a huge tree on new property just as his father leaves this life, and becomes, half in jest, but really entirely in earnest, convinced that his father's spirit is in that tree, just as it used to be connected to the land he left.

His brothers follow him with their wives, and none have the deep connection to the land and the landscape Joseph does. One has an unsentimental understanding of animals, but not the land itself. Another only understands his own libido and the last cleaves to the laws and precepts of evangelical Christianity. He is particularly disturbed by what he perceives as a pagan attachment to the land.

Joseph marries, has a child, and the land flourishes, even as dissension grows between the brothers and the others who live nearby. A couple of crises bring things to a head, and the tree is killed, and the connection to the land fundamentally severed. The disconnection from the divinity in nature is then reflected as a famine comes.

There are many reasons as to why this wouldn't be regarded as classic as some of Steinbeck's other works - The Grapes of Wrath is more political and angry, East of Eden more sprawling and mythic, Of Mice and Men more straightforwardedly tragic. But I liked it a lot, all the same. It's one of those books where merely trying to explain what it's about or what happens feels like I'm flattening out a lot of the depth, merely grazing the surface of a deeper pool.

Being pagan myself, I had a lot of sympathy for Joseph, and his brother is so self-righteously sure his ways are best, acting unilaterally to enforce his will because he believes it is right, that I wanted to smack him up the side of the head. It's a smaller tragedy, but one all the same, and brings of issues of disconnection and meaning that still resonated.

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