Thursday, April 16, 2009
To A God Unknown
Steinbeck, John. 1933. To A God Unknown. 186 pages.
Steinbeck seeks the answer to the age-old question, "Can a man love a tree too much?" in his novel To A God Unknown. What? You don't believe me that that is a universal question that everyone is dying to know the answer to? You've never pondered (to yourself or maybe even with a friend) if you could love a tree so much that you begin to worship it?
This novel focuses on the Wayne family. In particular, Joseph Wayne and his brothers. Determined to head west, to settle in California, Joseph disappoints his father, John, and sets out on his own. When Joseph finally arrives, when he finally sets foot on his own land, his own property, he gets a strange feeling. He knows, he feels, that his father has passed. Around the same time, he feels that his father is right there with him, right there watching him, watching the land. He gets the strongest feeling that his father settles into a tree--becomes one with it in a way. So time passes, as it always does, and Joseph convinces his brothers to come and settle near him. To buy adjoining property, to make one large family ranch that they can own all together and settle. And so it begins, at first it's not quite so obvious, the amount of respect, attention, adoration Joseph feels for 'the tree.' But it can't be hidden forever. One brother knows that his brother has lost touch with reality--at least with good Christian faith--when he sees his brother sacrificing wine and food to the tree, leaving offerings under it, sneaking off at night to speak with it. One brother becomes so angry he decides to do the unthinkable....
Does this tree have magical powers? Is Joseph right in assuming that as long as the tree thrives, the ranch will thrive, the family will thrive?
This is one strange book, I'll admit that up front. Joseph is not easily understood. Not by his wife, Elizabeth. Not by his brothers and their wives. Not by his hired hands. Not by the local priest. No, this Joseph is one-of-a-kind. But is he one-of-a-kind crazy? You be the judge!
I don't want to sound too flippant. I think this book has more literary value than I made it sound like in the first paragraph. A lot of symbols, for example. I think it could be discussed and dissected and explored in depth if readers wanted to get every literary drop out of it. I think it builds up on and explores various mythologies and religious symbols. It weaves together a mythology of its own in a way.
Did I like it? Yes and no. It isn't my favorite Steinbeck by any means. I don't think it is his masterpiece. It is his second novel after all. I'm glad I read it. But I'm not going to go out of my way to buy my own copy either.
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews
If you're reading this post on another site, or another feed, the content has been stolen.