Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (published 1937) is a book I first read I believe in tbe eigth grade and it made quite an impression on me.  George and Lennie, two ranch hands travelling together through California during the Great Depression looking for work.  George is small, quick, alert.  Lennie is big, strong with the mind of a child.  They are alone in the world except for each other and as George tells Lennie:

"Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world.  They got no family.  They don't belong no place.  They come to a ranch an' work up a stake and then they go inta town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they're poundin' their tail on some other ranch .... With us it ain't like that.  We got a future.  We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us"

The two men have a dream to have a place of their own where they can raise chickens, plant crops and Lennie will be able to care for the rabbits he loves so much.  It's a nice dream but there's a problem.  Lennie doesn't listen.  He doesn't do what George tells him and it has gotten George and Lennie into trouble but maybe things will be different at their new job.

Steinbeck tells us a good deal about the men who work on these ranches, as they hang around the bunk house, playing cards, talking about life, sharing gossip.  There is Slim, smart, respected and acknowledged by all to be the best rancher around.  Candy and his old dog who should be put down but Candy doesn't have the heart to do it. There is Curley, the boss' son who bullies the other men.  Crooks, the black ranch hand, angry and hurt that the white ranchers won't socialize with him.  There is Curley's young wife. The only female character in the book.  She is the catalyst to what will happen at the end and as with everyone else in the novel she is lonely and just wants a better life.

And that brings us to George and Lennie.  When I first read Of Mice and Men it was George that stood out for me but this time around the surprise was Lennie.  I remembered Lennie as a gentle giant who loved rabbits and all small creatures and  when we first meet him he is petting a little mouse he keeps in his pocket but here is the problem, the mouse is dead and for Lennie it doesn't make a difference.  He just likes to pet soft things,  Later when Lennie learns there are puppies on the ranch he gets excited.  George tells him to stay away from them.  Lennie doesn't listen and when he accidentally kills one of the puppies here is his reaction:

"And Lennie said softly to the puppy, 'Why do you got to get killed?  You ain't so little as mice.  I didn't bounce you hard ... Suddenly his anger arose.  "God damn you", he cried.  Why do you got to get killed?  You ain't so little as mice".  He picked up the pup and hurled it from him.  He turned his back on it.  He sat bent over his knees and he whispered, "Now, I won't get to tend the rabbits.  Now he won't let me".  He rocked himself back and forth in his sorrow".  

I had remembered Lennie wrong.  The only remorse he feels is self pity because now George might not let him tend the rabbits.  I make some allowances for the fact that Lennie is mentally disabled but I also wonder what does George see in Lennie?  Slim for example would have made a much better friend but could Steinbeck in the 1930's have written a story about Slim and George travelling together and telling their fellow ranch hands about their plans to have a place of their own?  My guess is Steinbeck didn't feel he could and so Lennie was created but even with Lennie, George feels the need to tell people they are cousins when in fact they are not related.

All of this said, I am glad I chose Of Mice and Men for my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge - reread a favorite classic and I have to get back to reading more Steinbeck.  The writer Barry Lopez said that "John Steinbeck brings together the human heart and the land" and I think that puts it very well.  He knew the American West, specifically California and its people.  But there is something universal and timeless about Steinbeck's novels which is why his books are read and loved the world over.