To a God Unknown, John Steinbeck’s second novel, uses a theme that often appears in his work, one that I’ve come to call the “broken dreams” theme. The short novel also examines closely the deep attachment that farmers and ranchers have to their land and how the same religious superstitions that can so easily comfort some will cause great stress and pain to others.
Young Joseph Wayne is the third of his father’s four sons, and he is not at all satisfied with his status as third son. Joseph yearns for a place of his own where he can create a homestead capable of comfortably supporting him and his offspring for generations to come. He has a clear vision and he is determined to make it a reality, so with his father’s reluctant blessing, Joseph leaves Vermont in favor of starting a new life in California. With no firm location in mind, Joseph wanders until he reaches central California’s long valley known as Nuestra Señora. And in Nuestra Señora, with the help of a proud Castilian sidekick, Joseph begins to build his dream home.
Things go so well for Joseph that upon his father’s death, he easily convinces his brothers to bring their families to California to join him on the land that he believes will forever be home to the Wayne family. But, as Joseph and his three brothers will learn the hard way, not all dreams come true, and Joseph’s does not even come close to becoming reality.
|Author John Steinbeck|
To a God Unknown is a novel filled with mysticism, paganism, and the deeply felt Christian beliefs of a simpler people living in simpler, more isolated times. At times it takes a combination of all three belief systems to bring Joseph any comfort, but in the end, nothing is strong enough to save him and his family from the despair and destruction toward which they are inevitably headed. It is life itself that finally breaks Joseph Wayne, once and forever.
To a God Unknown is filled with characters: the many members of Joseph’s immediate family, their spouses and children, and numerous locals of Anglo, Mexican and Spanish descent. Unfortunately, almost none of the characters have much of a ring of authenticity about them, and the tragic plot of the novel loses much of its impact because this. This is not one of Steinbeck’s finest efforts, but it was another good step for him toward becoming the excellent writer that he would ultimately be. Even if for that reason alone, Steinbeck fans will want to give this one a look.