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
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Ana S. said...

This is my father's favourite book, and he was actually telling me to read it just yesterday! I'm not sure if I want it to be my first Steinbeck, though. But I will get to it. I like what you said about how it explores several mythologies. I tend to be very drawn to books that do that.

Becky said...

I think if you've got a background in various mythologies--especially Greek--that the book will be more meaningful to the reader. Or if you've got a passion for mythology in general. It's not that I *don't* like mythology. But when I was reading the book, I wasn't taking the time to look up all these names and references and trying to pin down the significance of this and that. So I think it has literary value, but I wasn't willing--in the middle of the night--to make the effort to get all the connections.

Long story short, you'll probably like it more than I did. Especially if you're able to talk about it with your dad. That could make a huge difference right there.

I don't know about you, but when I sit down to read a book that I know is my mom's favorite or my grandma's favorite (or whatever) then I come to it with more of myself.

It might make a good Steinbeck, actually, to start with. Though don't take my word for it. I haven't read any of the biggies except Travels wit Charley. I've not read Of Mice and Men OR Grapes of Wrath yet OR East of Eden. I have found all of the books I've picked up to be engaging. I may not like where the story goes, but Steinbeck sure can tell a story! His language, his style is amazing most of the time. This is his second book, so it isn't as developed as some of his later ones. But if you read it after all the other ones, you might expect too much. It would be interesting in a way--though it's too late for me--to read his works chronologically to see how it evolves as a writer.

Ana S. said...

Becky, now I definitely want to read this! My dad was also saying he hasn't read it in years, so maybe me picking it up would inspire a re-read. I love Greek mythology, and the fact that there are references got me even more interested.

Also, I completely see what you mean about it being better not to start with an author's best work definitely can build up your expectations.

Becky said...

It would be great to share with your dad. So maybe a joint-read could be fun :) I know I always like it when I can read books with my mom. Unfortunately, she's convinced that she will never ever ever pick up Frankenstein, one of my most favorite books. Oh well :)

I didn't know if that would make sense or not. It's just a quirky thing I have wanting to save the best for last and such.

Zibilee said...

Wow! This sounds like a really unusual book. Although I haven't yet read any Steinbeck, that is something I have been meaning to change. I think I might really like this book, so thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Becky said...

Zibilee, you should read Steinbeck! I only discovered him in March and I've just really enjoyed his books so far.

Anonymous said...

Interesting review - and I didn't think you sounded flippant in the beginning - just funny. :) I thought it was a great attention-grabber - it certainly caught mine! L.

Michelle Fluttering Butterflies said...

I actually love that you started reading Steinbeck's lesser-talked about books first. I'd never heard of this book before you reviewed it. And I'm intrigued!