A gentle satire of 1950s smugness and perennial greed

Pros: Pleasant, unforced, and short

Cons: stereotyped bourgeois French wife

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John Steinbeck’s 1957 novel The Short Reign of Pippin IV is a genial fantasy in which 42 squabbling French political parties, none of which has any principles, are hopelessly deadlocked and decide to resurrect the monarchy and elevate an amateur astronomer who happens to be descended from Charlemagne, crown him, and force him to occupy the palace at Versailles with its 18th-century plumbing (almost entirely devoted to the fountains) and drafty permanent chill.

There is a certain amount of play with stereotypes of French domesticity, fashion, and contempt for government. There is Tod, an American boyfriend for the princess royale, Clotilde (who seems modeled on Françoise Sagan). Since Tod’s father is called “Chicken King of Petaluma,” Tod must be a prince and he is more than ready to advise Pippin about how American corporate kingdoms are ruled. He advises King Pippin to auction off titles of nobility and he also becomes partner with Pippin’s uncle, encouraging him to increase the scale of his business of selling art forgeries with a branch store in Hollywood. And the childhood friend of the new queen, a former nude dancer who is now Sister Hycanthine. Very rare in Steinbeck, is a female character who is neither a mother or a wh-or-e. She reminds me of the nun Melina Mercouri played later in “Nasty Habits” and gets the best line in the book: “I have known many people to ask for advice but very few who wanted it and none who followed it.”.

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Clearly, it is not just the French Steinbeck saw as unwilling to budge for incompetent self-serving politicians and special interests. The astronomer Pippin has resonances to the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, the “Doc” of so many Steinbeck books, and his rejection when he suggests reforms is similar to the derision that befell Adlai Stevenson for whom Steinbeck wrote speeches. (Steinbeck wrote the first draft of the novel before getting involved in the 1956 presidential campaign.)

Neither Pippin Heristal nor author John Steinbeck come across as bitter at the rejection of their sensible suggestions. More wistfully disappointed. It really is a very genial book, with humor less forced than in Sweet Thursday, the failed sort-of-a-novel that preceded it in Steinbeck’s publications. I picked it up to read while serving time in the jury assembly room. It is perfect for such an occasion as that or waiting around an airport. I only laughed out loud a few times, but it kept me smiling for the two and a half hours it took to read it.

This was part of the Steinbeck centenary writeoff I organized on epinions.

©2002, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Postwar settlin’ down

Pros: Amusing romance of a disappearing lifeway on the Monterey waterfront

Cons: Very predictable, sometimes seems condescending to characters

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In 1962 the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize for literature to John Steinbeck for the intermittently poetic but desolate works like In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, The Winter of Our Discontent, and (I’d add) The Red Pony and the rest of The Long Valley. Much of his popularity rests on the sly, often sentimental and contrived books about “slackers” of his day: Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday (a list to which I’d append Travels with Charley and a fair bit of Once There Was a War).

Sweet Thursday (published in 1954) is a post-WWII continuation of the setting and of some of the characters from Cannery Row (1945). Monterey Bay was overfished during the war: the sardines are gone and the canneries closed. Two of the major characters are also absent: Lee Chong has sailed off to the South Seas, and Dora has died. The store has passed to a devious Mexican (Jesus and Mary—the name of one man, not a man and a woman). And Dora’s sister has taken over the Bear Flag bordello. Born “Flora,” someone told her she seemed more Fauna than Flora, and she decided it was a better name for her.

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Steinbeck is as good an example as any of a man who saw women as either madonnas or whores (prototypically Abra and Kate, respectively, in East of Eden). Sweet Thursday offers something of a complication of that dichotomy. Fauna is a madame and Suzy one of her employees, but Fauna is very maternal, training her girls for marriage to gentlemen and helping her clientele and even non-client neighbors to understand what they really want. And Suzy is not at all cut out for the occupation in which she is temporarily engaged. In some sense both are independent women (and the world does not implode as a result!). Suzy is not exactly Doc’s equal, and it is certainly possible to read her vocation as mothering the middle-aged male child. And it is very tempting to interpret the conventionally happy ending as reflecting Steinbeck’s happy third marriage (just as the antagonisms and disappointments in most of the stories of The Long Valley seem to relate to Steinbeck’s then-crumbling first marriage).

“Doc,” who was contentedly independent before the war (WWII) in Cannery Row, is not contented following his return to the Monterey waterfront. He is trying to write a scientific paper on color changes reflecting emotions in octopi (“nervous breakdowns in devilfish” is the local translation), but is getting nowhere—just as his creator’s inspirations were also waning. Various denizens of the neighborhood try to help him to either write the paper or give it up. The eventual consensus solution to Doc’s midlife crisis is Suzy. The best-laid plans of bums and madames often and comically go astray to paraphrase the source of one of Steinbeck’s grimmer works.

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Considering that the main characters are suffering through troubling questions of their vocation, the novel is remarkably sunny. Too ingratiating for some (it is hardly a surprise that one was V. S. Naipaul), others have been amused and charmed by Sweet Thursday. I find some of it annoyingly patronizing (though not as much as Tortilla Flat), but often entertaining. I guess that readers comfortable with Steinbeck’s laissez-faire morality are more likely to enjoy it than others. Carefully planned interventions certainly go awry in the book, which would seem to be a very conservative message. Although I very much doubt that Steinbeck had any political implications in mind here, though the book certainly fits with a sort of compulsive domesticity that was rampant following the wartime mobilization(s). Enjoy it, as I did recently, or put it aside, as I did when I bought the book years ago!

This was one of my own contributions to the Steinbeck centenary writeoff on epinions.

©2002, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

A Steinbeck Tragedy : The Pearl

This was a contribution by Ed Williamson  to the Steinbeck centenary writeoff on epinions that I hosted.

Pros: Gritty and realistic.

Cons: Some readers may find it too dark and hopeless.

The Bottom Line: The Pearl is Steinbeck’s fine tale about a family who wishes to improve their lot in life, but who find doors blocked.

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Most people know that John Steinbeck is one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. My favorites among his short novels include Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony and The Pearl.

All of these not only show the reader a very believable group of characters, but they make the hills and seacoast of California and Mexico come to life. More importantly, they are concerned with the choices real-world people make, and the consequences of those choices. Steinbeck’s characters are not the wealthy people of Mexico’s aristocracy or the newly rich miners and moneyrunners of California’s boom days, but, rather, they are the homeless, the migrant workers, the poor fishermen, and the farmers. Steinbeck’s preference for telling the stories of the simple, the lowly, the working class, and the poor gives a look at a side of society often overlooked by other writers, and he bravely made this his province as a relectionist* of social conscience but also with incredible human insight into what affects persons on all levels of the social strata. The stories of these humble people show a deceptively simple, but important story to tell; a story filled with love and pain. The tales tell us not only of the lives of the poor who seek to live off the land, but, through the lens of their adversity, of the struggles of all people. In that sense, stories like The Pearl could be placed in China, Africa, the Middle East, or a hundred other locales, because the human drama itself would probably be the same. Steinbeck just happened to choose Mexico because that was where many of his memories were, and thus he could give clearer and comprehensive descriptions to the cultural locale that way even if the characterizations were universal.

The Pearl, which is set in La Paz, Mexico, down at the far tip of the Baja Peninsula, begins with a portrayal of the seemingly pleasant family life of Kino, his wife Juana, and their infant son, Coyotito. Kino the father watches as Coyotito sleeps, but sees a scorpion crawl down the rope that holds the hanging box where Coyotito lies. Kino attempts to catch the scorpion, but Coyotito bumps the rope and the scorpion falls on him. Even though Kino kills the scorpion, it still stings Coyotito. Juana and Kino, accompanied by their neighbors, go to see the local doctor, who refuses to treat Coyotito because Kino cannot pay for the medical treatment.

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Kino and Juana leave the doctors and take Coyotito down near the sea, where Juana uses a folk remedy on Coyotito’s shoulder, which is now swollen. Kino dives for oysters from his canoe, attempting to find pearls. He finds a very large oyster which, when Kino opens it, yields an immense pearl. Kino puts back his head and yells, causing the other pearl divers to look up and race toward Kino’s canoe.

The news that Kino has found a huge and valuable pearl travels fast through the town of La Paz. The doctor who refused to treat Coyotito decides to visit Kino. Kino’s neighbors begin to feel bitter toward him for his good fortune, but neither Kino nor Juana realize this sentiment is present and is hurting them.

Kino’s brotrher, Juan Tomas, asks him what he will do with his money, and he envisions getting married to Juana in a church and dressing Coyotito in a yachting cap and sailor suit. He claims that he will send Coyotito to school and buy a rifle for himself.

The local priest visits and tells Kino to remember to give thanks and to pray for guidance. The doctor also visits, and although Coyotito seems to be healing, the doctor insists that Coyotito still faces danger and treats him. Kino tells the doctor that he will pay him once he sells his pearl, and the doctor attempts to discover where the pearl is located (Kino has buried it in the corner of his hut). That night, a thief tries to break into Kino’s hut, but Kino drives him away. Juana tells Kino that the pearl will destroy them, but Kino insists that the pearl is their big chance at life and that tomorrow they will sell it.

Kino’s neighbors wonder what they would do if they had found the pearl, and suggest giving it as a present to the Pope, buying Masses for the souls of his family, and distributing it among the poor of La Paz. Kino goes to sell his pearl, accompanied by his neighbors, but the pearl dealer only offers a thousand pesos when Kino believes that he deserves fifty thousand. Although other dealers inspect the pearl and give similar prices, Kino refuses their offer and decides to go to the capital to sell it there. That night, Kino is attacked by more thieves, and Juana once again reminds Kino that the pearl is evil. However, Kino vows that he will not be cheated, for he is a man.

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Later that night, Juana attempts to take the pearl and throw it into the ocean, but Kino finds her and beats her for doing so. While outside, a group of men accost Kino and knock the pearl from his hand. Juana watches from a distance, and sees Kino approach her, limping with another man whose throat Kino has slit. Juana finds the pearl, and they decide that they must go away even if the murder was in self-defense. Kino finds that his canoe has been damaged and their house was torn up and the outside set afire. Kino and Juana stay with Juan Tomas and his wife, Apolonia, where they hide for the next day before setting out for the capital that night.

Kino and Juana travel that night, and rest during the day. When Kino believes that he is being followed, the two hide and Kino sees several bighorn sheep trackers who pass by him. Kino and Juana escape into the mountains, where Juana and Coyotito hide in the cave while Kino, taking his clothes off so that no one will see his white clothing. The trackers think that they hear something when they hear Coyotito crying, but decide that it is merely a coyote pup. After a tracker shoots in the direction of the cries, Kino attacks the three trackers, killing all three of them. Kino can hear nothing but the cry of death, for he soon realizes that Coyotito is dead from that first shot. Juana and Kino return to La Paz. Kino carries a rifle stolen from the one of the trackers he killed, while Juana carries the dead Coyotito. The two approach the gulf, and Kino, who now sees the image of Coyotito with his head blown off in the pearl, throws it into the ocean.

The story is obviously grim and yet intensely universal in a world where the poor are the victims of the greedy and the wealthy. Juana and Kino are hunted like animals throughout the story from the time they have something of value. But the hunt itself, especially in the final stages, seems to reduce Kino himself from the level of “good human” to an animal fighting for his survival.

Steinbeck shows this through several events, such as when Kino attacks the trackers. In this section, Kino moves from being capable of murder for self-defense to a more calculated and premeditated kind of killing. The three men are thus killed out of fear and instinct and not because of any tangible threat they pose to him.

The writer also shows the loss of humanity within Kino when he crawls naked to find the trackers so that his white clothes will not expose him. He loses the final symbols of his humanity to become even more like an animal. This is particularly ironic when considering the death of Coyotito. Kino behaves as an animal so that he can protect himself and his family, but Coyotito dies when the child is mistaken for (the name he bears) a coyote pup.

Contrasting the savage and brutal Kino, Juana becomes stronger as a human through the suffering she faces. She shows herself to be dedicated to her husband even at the most dire moments, demanding that he not break up their family.

When Kino and Juana return to La Paz the story becomes anticlimactic, yet contains some degree of an ironic but sad lesson . Kino comes back to La Paz with the one tool that he desperately wanted, a rifle, but he has lost his child and rejects the pearl. His rebuff of the pearl fully demonstrates the horror that the pearl has wrought upon him.

The Pearl therefore seems a tale with an ambiguous meaning at best and a morbidly fatalistic one at worst. But there is more to it than that.

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The story seems to warn against attempting to better one’s social situation, recalling Juan Tomas’ story of the pearl agent who stole the townspeople’s pearls. Although it seems to indict Kino for his attempts to gain the fortune that the pearl offers, at the same time it offers equal if not greater censure to the wealthy of La Paz who attempt to exploit Kino and thwart his attempts to sell the pearl. Even if Steinbeck does not intend the story to be critical of Kino for his behavior, the story implies that Kino and Juana are locked in and could do nothing to improve their situation.

Perhaps the most valid polemic that Steinbeck offers in The Pearl concerns the effects that the newfound opportunity for wealth has on Kino, who replaces what seem to be civilized values with an almost neurotic preoccupation with the pearl and paranoia concerning those around him. Yet in the end, when the pearl causes him unbearable pain, Kino chooses to get rid of the pearl for all the calamity it has caused him and Juana.

When Kino finally throws the pearl into the ocean, he gets rid of what has become a meaningless object. The pearl is now valueless in the sense that, without Coyotito, the pearl has no power to provide for a better future for Kino and Juana, who could gain only simple material items from their fortune.

As a lesson, The Pearl is an engaging one. What Steinbeck seems to be saying is that even sudden wealth will not improve the life of the poor simply by its discovery. If the poor in many cultures are to have any hope to better themselves, they will need freedom and protection by the law in order to turn their opportunity into a dream which will come true. True democracies with middle classes have made that possible. But in the end it can only come from the sustained efforts of people who care for others; people of conscience. Some may call that bleeding-heart liberalism. I call it love.

 

*REFLECTIONIST: ( Re-flec’-tion-ist) ( Origins in “Looking-Glass” literaria, op. cit.) (n.) (1.) One who is prone to reflect on certain subjects which are of interest to him or her. (2.) A passionate, driven person who thinks continuously of his or her obsession.(3.) A person who only gives occasional and fleeting reflection upon a person, place, or thing, at rare times…as a special person I once knew very well might do these days in regard to me. -Williamson’s Vest Pocket Dictionary

 

©2002, Ed Williamson

The Wayward Bus Limps into San Francisco (?!)

33 Days after the John Steinbeck centenary and the epinions writeoff I organized to commemorate, Alex Fraser (as macresarf1) delivered the following.

Pros: Readable tale about Post-War Americans the next generation rebelled against: America as it was.

Cons: Slack writing and a weak plot.

The Bottom Line: THE WAYWARD BUS marks the beginning of Steinbeck’s decline in the eyes of critics, perhaps rightly so, though EAST OF EDEN lay before him. Interesting even when second rate.

Recommended: No

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When last I left you, we were at the corner of Mission and Valencia, staring at a white haired man through the front window of the Abandoned Planet Book Store. I had not planned to come there, but it occurred to me that the old man might have a copy of THE WAYWARD BUS by John Steinbeck. I had promised colleague Stephen Murray a review of the 1947 novel as part of a write-off he organized. The book was not in my collection, and as became discouragingly clear after several weeks, it was out of print and hard to find. Fortunately, this man had a copy. In fact, it was the only Steinbeck left on his shelf devoted to the California writer.

“Had a lot of his books,” he said. “All bought up around the time of his [100tth] birthday, about a month ago. No one seems to care much for this one.”

“I know,” I said, feeling a mixture of guilt and relief.

Thus, did I buy a stained copy of Steinbeck’s first Post War novel, one of his least successful, for $4.62. Coming away with it and a couple of copies of “Peace News” the man pressed upon me, I did not realize that dental problems and mechanical difficulties would further postpone this review.

Although I enjoyed THE WAYWARD BUS in the early 1950’s, I saw right away why the critics condemned it at the time. Steinbeck’s best work was always site specific, and detailed in fresh, supple language. However, his writings like THE PASTURES OF HEAVEN, IN DUBIOUS BATTLE, TORTILLA FLAT, OF MICE AND MEN, THE LONG VALLEY, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and CANNERY ROW had made him enemies among certain individuals who thought he was writing about them, their homes and their lives. And so, after several years writing journalism and screenplays during the War, working on a big novel, EAST OF EDEN, he turned out THE WAYWARD BUS as a rather vague potboiling yarn about characters not native to Steinbeck Country.

First, I noticed that the novel is set somewhere on the edge of California’s great Central Valley, presumably near [north-south] Highway 99, or perhaps [east-west] Highway 152. It begins in a place Steinbeck has made up called Rebel Corners and goes on to refer to places like San Ysidro, perhaps San Francisco, and then San Juan de la Cruz, possibly Fresno. Never having been to California when I read THE WAYWARD BUS the first time, none of the geography bothered me much, but having lived out here many years now, on this re-reading, I was bothered where the action was taking me all the way through.

A group of travelers are stranded at Rebel Corners. They have presumably meandered down Highway One from San Francisco and hope Juan Chicoy’s independent bus line will take them east to Highway 101, hence south to San Juan de la Cruz, and to Los Angeles beyond, but that is never really clear. The bus, referred to as Rocinante, El Gran Poder de Jesus or Sweetheart, has broken down, a victim of “rear-end problems.”

Juan Chicoy, born of an Irish mother, “a magnificent mechanic,” is from the mountains of Mexico. His assistant, Pimples Carson, is one of those young men, in a tattered motorcycle sweater, “drawn southward toward Los Angeles and, of course, Hollywood, where eventually all the adolescents in the World will be congregated.” [Little did Steinbeck or fellow Americans know that Hollywood instead would make the rest of us adolescents, eternally so.] Alyce, Juan’s wife, who runs the lunch room, has a drinking problem, is depressed, and feels that she is aging and unattractive. She is helped behind the counter by Norma, a young woman who dreams only of going to Hollywood to meet Clark Gable (just returned from war service with the Eighth Air Force over Europe).

This is the America of just after World War II. Business is recovering from a recession. Young men are flooding back from the Armed Forces. Many women are beginning to strain over Pre-War strictures which are being re-imposed upon them. Teenagers like Pimples Carson want to be called Kit.

And a Babe Ruth candy bar is still a nickel.

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Central among the travelers are the Pritchards, representing the heartland of America. Elliott Pritchard is a Chicago businessman, solidly Republican, who ironically looks like President Harry Truman. His wife Bernice, a dainty, constipated matron, has read somewhere that “travel is broadening.” The couple hate foreigners, but because their daughter Mildred has studied Spanish in college, Bernice has manipulated a wandering vacation to Mexico. Though Steinbeck does not mention it, the idea of utilizing Daughter Mildred as their interpreter anticipates “Togetherness,” which would become a dominant family theme of the era. The elder Pritchards do not know that, before the War, Mildred picketed ships taking scrap iron to Japan, and collected money to buy medical supplies for the Spanish Loyalists.

An ambiguous figure is Ernest Horton, a novelty salesman for the Little Wonder Company, who has two gold teeth, likes practical jokes, and who has been unluckily married — an experience he does not want to repeat. But later, Ernest is revealed as a Congressional Medal winner . . . seems to change character, and attracts Elliott Pritchard as the kind of young man who would be perfect for his company.

A fifth traveler, old Mr. Van Brunt, lives to the southeast, and he immediately establishes himself as hangdog. He does not trust Juan, he does not trust the bus, and he does not trust the weather.

It is spring in California, and it has been raining for a day and a night. Worries about two bridges between them and the Highway drive the action. Those worries are compounded by the entrance of Camille, who is brought by way of Greyhound and a superfluous subplot from San Ysidro to Rebel Corners. She is the sort of girl who immediately attracts the men under eighty, and polarizes most of the women.

By the time the bus at last pulls out of the Corners with nearly all the characters on board, over a third of this 312 page novel has been consumed.

The novelistic device of the doppelganger is much in evidence. There are two bus drivers, two jealous wives, two ardent swains, etc. The theme which emerges, dear to Steinbeck’s biologist heart, central to much of his work, is the question of how creatures can pull together, cooperate in maintaining their survival. We have seen it in The Grapes of Wrath, his propaganda novel The Moon is Down, and most starkly in his screen scenario for Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT (1944).

THE WAYWARD BUS is well named because it grinds through rain and mud and lupines in the general direction of Hollywood, without saying very much about its symbolic destination. Its social consciousness is preserved by a rather daring for its time) bi-racial sexual encounter (between Juan and Mildred).

Not surprisingly, ten years later, the novel was made into what Leonard Maltin describes as a “low-brow” Cinemascope movie, directed by an obscure Franco-Russian director, Victor Vicas, with Joan Collins, Jayne Mansfield, Dan Dailey and Rick Jason. The movie was no more successful than the novel.

I am glad I re-read THE WAYWARD BUS. The experience showed me that my critical faculties have developed considerably in forty years, but I would not recommend the novel to anyone else.

However, I found that The Abandoned Planet Book Shop at 518 Valencia was, in its laid back way, quite a lively place.

All was not lost.

©2002, Alex Fraser

Tortilla Flat is not so comforting but still wonderful

This was Mridula’s contribution to the John Steinbeck Centenary Writeoff I organized on epinions in 2002:

Pros: A book worth reading, talks about things out of my comfort zone.

Cons: none

The Bottom Line: Read it, it flows so well, has so much of emotion, and yet pointing to harsh reality.

I first time read Steinbeck on recommendation of my husband and the book was The Wayward Bus. Hmm I am a bit ashamed to admit that before my reading world was limited to Mills and Boon and the likes. Nothing wrong with it maybe, after all English is my second language but once I started reading all this stuff, I am kind of hooked, so much so that when I should be writing my thesis, here I am writing a review. But back to the subject, I have read The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl, Burning Bright. East of Eden, and probably a few more and I have to say I love all of them.

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Tortilla Flat [1935] is the story of Danny and his gang. While reading this book, all along I had a mild discomfort which at that time I could not put my finger to. Maybe most of the books I read, the people in it are well off, at least comfortable in life. Not so in this book. Danny and his gang (I will introduce them shortly) are people not so well off in life, living in a place called ‘Tortilla Flat’ and they are paisanos, a people mainly, though not purely, of Spanish origin. Tortilla Flat is there story.

Danny has come back home from military service, only to find that he has to longer sleep in ditches. He has inherited two houses from his grandfather. But probably for a person who has no possessions in life, this is not an unmixed blessing. He feels he now has a responsibility and it is weighing him down. But he has friends, real friends who are only too willing to share it, if only there is a gallon of wine available everyday.

Danny’s friend Pilon needs shelter, so Danny rents his house to his good friend at dollar 15 a month, who in turn rents it to another friend, Pablo at the same amount, so that he can pay rent to Danny. In the second house another friend, Big Joe Portagee, joins them and they are quite merry. But the house gets destroyed after a few days and the whole gang moves, where else but to Danny’s house. All of them are merry, Danny is very particular about not letting anyone use his bed, and rest all is shared property. And now no rent need be paid, after all the friends are guests in Danny’s house and can one charge rent from friends?

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So the problem of shelter is solved, but what about food and more importantly wine? Many escapades happen in search of it, and in one such quest another member, Pirate, joins them. Now the gang is complete. Also at one point or the other some member of the gang falls in love with women of Tortilla Flat, but then the rest of the gang waits patiently for him to come back to the fold. In this way the life goes on for some time, only to be disrupted in the end rather violently, and I was so much in love with these people that I felt badly disturbed by the way book ended. How I wish it had not ended like this. For Danny is ever-cheerful friend, willing to share whatever he has. Pilon is the moral force of the gang, the master logician, Joe and Pablo lend their own personalities and Pirate and his five dogs are so simple and loveable, yet Pirate has determination of steel that probably the very simple can have, those who do not argue pros and cons to death and then take a decision. I wonder what these people did to deserve the end that came to them.

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I like this book a lot, first of all because it in some sense hits me between the eyes. Say in another book by same author, Burning Bright, the story is about a man who can not have children, does not know it, does not want to know it and a wife, who will go to any extent to protect him. Now this is something I feel comfortable with. Don’t give me a book where people don’t know where the next meal will come from. But then when I was given such a book in Tortilla Flat, I faced it, but I have yet to rationalize it. The things that were comforting were he companionship among friends, sharing however reluctantly the wine but ever so readily the food. I envied them most for having a peaceful sleep and not waking up to alarm clocks, waking up leisurely and not like me, jumping from the bed feeling guilty about sleeping late. But them will I exchange it for not having the surety of next meal? I guess I don’t have the courage.

The book is beautifully written about a subject that not many authors will choose. Though it is set in the post World War I era and life seems much uncomplicated but how do I know, I have not read a book about such people that has been set in current times. Maybe, just maybe, they still lead the same life, I only hope they don’t meet the same end.

©2002, Mridula

 

 

Occupation and covert resistance

John Steinbeck (1902-68) was dismayed by the swift Nazi conquest of most of Europe and by the German propaganda he encountered in Mexico, where he was writing the screenplay for “The Forgotten Village “(released in September 1941). He wrote a short novel (112 pages in the current Penguin edition) before the US was jolted into WWII. The Moon Is Down was published by the Viking Press in March of 1942, the apogee of Axis success, with a confidence of their ultimate defeat that must have seemed quite optimistic at the time.

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The novel does not name the conquerors as Nazis, though the invaders’ cult of the Leader makes them unmistakable. And the country that fell to the well-planned (with the aid of local traitors) is not specified. From having read the book closer to the time it was set than to the present, I remembered the setting as being Norway. Norwegians reading secretely published translation of the book thought so, too. But so did Danish and Dutch and French readers. The book was translated and the translations widely read despite the occupiers. The book was banned by Italian Fascists as well as by Nazis, but sold well, with the proceeds helping finance resistance organizations across conquered Europe.

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A dozen local soldiers armed with rifles were cut down by machine guns. Three survived and went into hiding. The colonel in charge of keeping the coal moving from mines to ships, Lanser, urged the somewhat officious mayor to keep production orderly. A veteran of occupation of Belgium and France two decades earlier, Lanser hoped that indirect rule would avoid the need for killing. Passive aggressive responses to him begins with his first meeting with the mayor from the mayor’s wife and cook.26292P.jpg

Eventually, some of his officers are slain and the rules of engagement require reprisals, though Lanser knows they will not work, and that covert sabotage will continue. One of his officers advocates for a reign of terror, but Lanser is not a cartoon monster (like, say, the Nazi martinet Conrad Veidt played in what became the Oscar-winning best movie of 1942, “Casablanca,” a movie of reluctant resistance by someone who would have preferred to get along).

The novel has some recognizably Steinbeckian humor, especially the character of the cook: “The occupation did not improve her temper. Indeed, what for years had been considered simply a bad disposition suddenly became patriotic emotion.” And the mayor hs a best friend and counselor who is a physician, another version of Ed Ricketts.

The novel was criticized by some American reviewers (Donald Coers’s 1995 introduction to the Penguin edition singles out James Thurber and Clifton Fadiman) thought the book did not portray the Nazis as vicious marauders, but those in the occupied countries resisting Nazi domination were inspired by the reluctant heroism of the mayor and the widespread covert resistance portrayed.

Steinbeck had talked to many early refugees from Nazi Europe. What impresses me more than his understanding of how the conquered would behave is his insight into the frustration metamorphosing into fear of the conquerors and the effect of widespread and continuous hatred on the conquerors. The dynamic was recapitulated by attempts at indirect rule by the US military (I’ve been reading about the insane of Okinawa from 1945 to 1972, but Afghanistan during either the Soviet or the American occupations with nominal local puppet rulers could do as well.)

Steinbeck had first set the book in the US, imaging American passive resistance, but US propaganda officials did not like anything suggesting the possibility of the US being occupied by Nazis, though, then as now, there were some home-grown ones. The Norwegian Vikud Qusiling became the archetype (Corell provides a small-town version of wanting to be rewarded by the conquerors in the novel), which may partly explain my memory of the book being set in Norway.

 

It is easy to see the novel being adapted to the stage, which it quickly was. There was also a 1943 film version. In that the introduction, by the author of John Steinbeck as Propagandist: The Moon Is Down Goes to War, is mostly about the reception (domestic and foreign) of the book, I think it would have better been placed as an afterword.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray