A Salinas Girl Reads East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden: The Final Frontier

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Eat my dust, Oprah. I finished East of Eden last night at 11:21 pm. This book was way more engaging and entertaining than I expected.

That being said, I’d give it four stars, not five. It would have been five stars with a couple hundred fewer pages. Lop off 200-300 pages and it still would have been epic. But it would also have been a page-turner in the sense of wanting to know what happens next…not a page-turner in the sense of OMG I’ve already invested 500 pages and it just needs to be over.

I Loved:

  • How entertaining Cathy’s evil exploits are. I mean, a crochet needle? Really?
  • The setting. I’m from Salinas, so of course I could picture everything easily. But Salinas is different now. Steinbeck shows you the Salinas of then so successfully you feel like you’re there. He knows that place blind – and he makes sure you do, too. Plus, now I know exactly where the whorehouse was.
  • The danger he put his characters in. Several main characters die and none of them are ever “safe.” Throw in a psychopath, war, and the generally hard nature of life in the late 1800s/early 1900s and you never knew when someone was going to buy the farm. For a modern reader, call it a touch of Game of Thrones syndrome.
  • The story about Lee’s parents. It’s been almost a month since I read that part of the story and it’s still with me. I don’t want to ruin it for you because you really need to hear it unfold, but goddamn. Someone needs to write a whole book about that, if they wouldn’t get sued by the Steinbeck estate.

But I Didn’t Like:

  • Long sections featuring only the Hamiltons. They’re really boring. Other than Samuel, none of them had a major role or even an effect on the Trasks. Okay, Will played a minor role by helping Cal with the bean-futures thing, but that could easily have been some other character and nothing would have changed. I would have edited out everyone but Sam. Dessie, Tom, etc…what was the point?
  • The way Cathy changed toward the end.  She lost her nerve. She fucking gave up. I do not like that. I think it was the easy way out. Someone should have foiled her. Instead, old age and arthritis got her. That doesn’t really match up with the extreme psychopathy she demonstrated earlier in the book. I wonder if Steinbeck wrote himself into a corner and just wasn’t sure how to get out. The whole Alice in Wonderland thing was really corny, too. Like we’re suddenly going to sympathize with her because she read Alice in Wonderland as a kid.
  • The Lee and Abra love-fest at the end of the book. It’s not that I didn’t want both characters to find a little happiness, it’s just that I’m not sure it was warranted between these two characters. Nothing against Abra, but Lee needed to get out more. Abra was the only girl either of the boys brought home. He has no basis for comparison.

And I’m Not Sure How I Feel About:

  • The number of times Steinbeck played the future card. I can’t even count how often the narrator and/or characters told others that something would happen or be possible in the future, just you wait, whippersnapper. Steinbeck was writing in the future so he knew exactly who he was making right. It feels like a cheap trick. Adam with his refrigerated shipping, for example – and that postmaster in King City who said cars would make people check their mail more than once a week.

Well, Grad School Paid Off, I Guess

I’m going through my notes from the section where Lee and Samuel debate the correct translation of the Biblical Cain and Abel story. The crux of the issue is this: one translation promises Cain will rule over sin, while the other commands he rule over it. This is a huge fucking difference. The Chinese scholars Lee consulted came to the conclusion that the correct translation was  in fact “thou mayest.” The Hebrew word in the original, timshel, is most closely translated as a conditional. It implies a choice not present in the King James version (the promise) or the American Standard Bible (the command). In my notes, I wrote, “choice makes a man a man (‘thou mayest’) – prob meaning of the book.” Holy hell if I wasn’t right. The last scene clinches it. Was that 30 grand well spent? You make the call.

But Did I Learn Anything? Am I Changed?

As a person? No. I’m not going to change any of my ways or think differently about a person or people because of something I found in this book. But there are things I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Lee’s parents, Cathy as a fucking psychopath, and the idea that Steinbeck valued choice as the measure of a man. Team Free Will, in Supernatural parlance.

I’ll be tweeting some of my favorite quotes from the book, so check out @JenniWiltz for more Steinbeck goodness.

Have You Read East of Eden?

Chime in! What did you think when you got to any of the parts I mentioned above?

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I write thrillers, romance, historical fiction, tiara posts, and more. Right now, I'm working on a nonfiction trilogy: Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden, Grand Duchess Elizaveta Mikhailovna of Russia, and Princess Augusta of Brunswick.

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