Friday, September 7, 2018
The Long Valley by John Steinbeck
California realism at its best
Published in 1938, The Long Valley is a collection of short stories by Nobel-Prize winning author John Steinbeck. The stories included here (with one exception) were written in 1933 and 1934, and most of them had seen prior publication in magazines. Among the selections is “The Red Pony,” which is probably just long enough to qualify as a novella. Steinbeck’s writing is the culmination of a long and distinguished tradition of California realism extending from Bret Harte to Frank Norris and Jack London. All but one of these stories are set in Steinbeck’s homeland of Salinas County, and they stand as wonderful exemplars of American regional realism.
To be honest, I was a bit underwhelmed by the volume’s first few selections. “The Chrysanthemums” and “The White Quail” are two contrasting, almost Ibsen-esque studies of wifehood that are perhaps too subtle to serve as captivating lead-off hitters. “Flight” starts out as a great piece of social realism about a poor Mexican family, but then turns into a sluggishly paced tale of a manhunt. “The Snake” is a precursor to Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row in that it stars a marine biologist named Doc who works in a lab on the Monterrey waterfront. Though the main character and the setting are fascinating, the story that unfolds is OK at best. “The Breakfast,” a 3-page description of a memorable campfire meal, may be vividly rendered, but it amounts to little more than a sketch. Though the first third of the book is a bit lackluster, the opening pages of “The Raid” will blow you away, and from that point on the masterpieces just keep coming..
“The Raid” is a brilliantly suspenseful tale of two socialist party members who are determined to hold a meeting, even though they know they will be beaten and possibly killed. Steinbeck’s storytelling is grimly realistic with a dash of the workingman’s leftist idealism that would be further developed in The Grapes of Wrath. On to something completely different, “The Harness” is a lighthearted slice of agrarian life in which a farmer gets a new lease on life after the death of his overbearing wife. Next, the shocking story “The Vigilante” is told from the point of view of a man who has just participated in his first lynching. Nothing prepares the reader for the bizarre title character of “Johnny Bear,” a creepy helping of rural gothic that reads like a classic episode of The Twilight Zone or The X-Files. In “The Murder,” a farmer marries a beautiful foreign woman who makes a cold and distant wife. The story turns brutal and a bit sexist, but real for its times, like a harsh blues song. The one oddball in the collection is “Saint Katy the Virgin,” a humorous piece set in medieval France. This story of a demonic pig is not without its satirical charms, but it bears no resemblance to any of the other selections and doesn’t really belong in The Long Valley.
The novella “The Red Pony” presents a series of scenes in the life of a boy growing up on a Salinas Valley ranch. In the opening chapter, the boy receives the red pony as a gift from his father, and his relationship to the animal becomes the defining moment of his life. Depending on the edition, the story “The Leader of the People” is sometimes considered the final chapter of “The Red Pony” and sometimes a separate story in its own right, a sequel with the same characters and setting. Together the “Red Pony” stories stand as expertly crafted works of American literary naturalism. Dealing with issues of life, death, coming of age, and the passing of the Old West, they are beautifully written, starkly authentic, and truly moving. For the most part, these same adjectives of praise can be applied to The Long Valley as a whole. Despite a few shortcomings here and there, overall the collection is a great work of American literature and a powerful reading experience.
Stories in this collection
The White Quail
Saint Katy the Virgin
The Red Pony
The Leader of the People
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