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John Steinbeck is one of the great American writers. His novels and short stories frequently took place in southern and central California and often focuses on themes of love, fate and justice, with ‘everyman’ – often terribly flawed – central characters. After the world celebrated Steinbeck “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, after a body of work containing the Pulitzer Prize winning The Grapes of Wrath, and other notable works such as Cannery Road and Of Mice and Men. But it is the epic East of Eden, published in 1952, that Steinbeck considered his magnum-opus. “There is only one book to a man”, Steinbeck famously wrote of East of Eden, a 600 page novel set in the Salinas Valley, California, at the turn of the 20th century.

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The narrator tells the story of two families – the Trasks, headed by Adam, and the Hamiltons, headed by Samuel – as their lives intertwine over several generations in the rich farmland of the Salinas Valley. I won’t go into any more detail than that – I can’t, not without writing another thousand words – but East of Eden is heavily influenced on the Bible’s Book of Genesis, especially the story of Cain and Abel, and the struggle for their father, Adam. The title itself is taken from Genesis, Chapter 4, verse 16: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden.”

The Trask family end up re-enacting the rivalry of Cain and Abel not once but twice in the book. First, with Adam and Charles Trask vying for their father Cyrus’s love, and then in Salinas, where Adam raises the two twins Aron and Caleb Trask, alone. The parallels are obvious, from brothers being very different people, to the handling of rejection and the wrath of jealousy, and the consequences of these actions. I don’t think Steinbeck was trying in any way to be subtle, and while the symbolism may seem somewhat heavy handed at times, they are no less powerful, and this is testament to how well Steinbeck writes and breathes life into these characters. Lee, the Trask’s Cantonese, surprisingly philosophical servant, and old Sam Hamilton, a jolly inventor and farmer who is adored by all for his strength and heart and values, are personal favourites, and I have not felt such a strong attachment and admiration for two fictional characters in some time.

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?

East of Eden is a strange book. To describe it as ‘biblical’ is sheer laziness, but it is a unique and beautiful read. It feels historical, mythical, magical all at once. It suffers from heavy handed characters, some of which are too easily defined as ‘good’ and ‘evil’, it can be verbose and melodramatic, but it has a strong heart. A compelling fable retelling the story of man’s original sin, the maddening way of love and the consequences of its absence, and the internal struggle that happens within all of us, that of right and wrong, and the human ability, that freedom to choose.

But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.

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Not every book listed as a piece of great literature or heralded as one of the ‘classics’ is going to appeal to you as a reader. But there is a reason texts such as Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby and Romeo and Juliet are often chosen for school curriculums. They have something valuable to teach – something that these particular authors have done well. Allegory, characteristics, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) themes and meanings, commentaries on periods or cultures. And from my perspective books such as Of Mice and Men can educate you on writing; even if they aren’t, in a narrative sense, your cup of tea.

Of Mice and Men will never be one of my favourites books. I’ll remember it fondly as it sits on the shelf but I can’t get excited about it. But for a book that barely hits the 100 page mark, John Steinbeck does a lot right and I appreciate that.

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I appreciate how Steinbeck creates dialogue that is natural and flows. Spoken throughout in heavy Californian US dialect yet each character has their own tone, and the words they use have weight. I’ve read that Of Mice and Men was originally written as a play, which makes a lot of sense when you consider the small number of ‘scenes’ throughout the book and the rather wooden and descriptive introductions to them, which read a lot like stage directions.

The friendship and responsibility George feels for Lennie, even though their past (and reasons for companionship) are never covered in depth. They don’t need to be, because Steinbeck’s tale is set in the Great Depression, and the consequential struggles many faced to make something of their lives (a theme common throughout Steinbeck’s work), and in George’s case in particular, the fear of loneliness. He admits that Lennie is a nuisance, and deep down knows he is a danger to himself and others. There is a stigma against mental illness in this time, and there is a fantastic chapter in which one of the farm workers convinces an elderly ranch-hand to let him mercifully shoot his old, stinking, worthless dog. It’s a clear metaphor for the relationship between George and Lennie, and it makes for a surprisingly sad and uncomfortable scene.

I ain’t got no people. I seen the guys that go around on the ranches alone. That ain’t no good. They don’t have no fun. After a long time they get mean. They get wantin’ to fight all the time. . . ‘Course Lennie’s a God damn nuisance most of the time, but you get used to goin’ around with a guy an’ you can’t get rid of him.

Of Mice and Men reinforces the fact that a book does not need to be lengthy to be compelling, emotional and hard-hitting.