Friday, September 04, 2015

The Pastures of Heaven

The Pastures of Heaven is John Steinbeck’s 1932 collection of twelve intertwining short stories set in a fertile valley near Salinas and Monterey, California.  As time passes, the characters, all of whom know each other in the way that people in small communities usually do, come and go as their individual stories and fates unfold.  Some set their roots so deeply that they and their descendants will be there forever, but others are only there long enough for some personal tragedy or failure to send them on their way.

In the collection’s second story, one Bert Battle, a man with a history of personal failure, comes to the valley to take over a farm that locals believe is both cursed and haunted.  Bert, though, makes such a success of the farm that he is soon accepted into the community and even becomes one of the most influential citizens in the entire valley.  Reflecting upon his great success at the valley’s general store one day, Bert remarks, “Maybe my curse and the farm’s curse got to fighting and killed each other off.”   This leads the storekeeper to make a prophetic observation of his own, one that sets the tone for the rest of the book: “Maybe your curse and the farm’s curse have mated and gone into a gopher hole like a pair of rattlesnakes.  Maybe there’ll be a lot of baby curses crawling around the Pastures the first thing we know.” 

It was only a joke on the storekeeper’s part – but that is exactly what would happen.

The Pastures of Heaven (Castle Rock in Upper Center)
Several of Steinbeck’s stories are about dreamers who cannot resist the lure of the valley’s beauty and tranquility.  They come seeking shelter but find that their personal failings travel to the valley with them.   One man tries to raise his little boy in a kind of isolated poverty he believes will give the child an untainted life of the mind, only to watch his world crumble when school authorities demand that his son attend public school.  A woman comes to town with her mentally disturbed daughter hoping that the solitude will be good for both of them; an abandoned baby is found and taken into the care of a local rancher; two sisters decide to supplement their income by opening up a home business; and a new schoolteacher comes to town hoping to leave her family’s past behind her for good.  And it does not end well for any of them.

Along the way, a few dreams do seem to come true.  But those “baby curses” are always out there waiting to destroy those who dare to dream, especially those who dare to dream as big as the protagonist of the collection’s next-to-last story (the stories are numbered, not titled separately).   Richard Whiteside came to the West to start a family dynasty and he immediately went to work building the family home that he envisioned would anchor the Whitesides there for many generations to come.  But Richard’s personal “baby curse” just smiled and waited in the background. 

The Pastures of Heaven is certainly not an optimistic short story collection, but readers of the book will get a preview of many of the themes that would influence John Steinbeck’s work throughout the rest of his career.

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