As if I had known how beautiful it would be in Venta Micena, Andalusia, I brought a book about a similarly beautiful valley to read during my stay: The Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck.
In this early work, first published in 1932, Steinbeck already displayed many of the skills that led to great works like The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men or Tortilla Flat – and to the Nobel Prize in Literature. There are twelve short stories, loosely connected by some recurring characters, but all connected by place: a valley in California, the beauty of which nobody can deny and which is the book’s real main character.
The protagonists are mostly normal people, farmers, store owners, housewives, teachers, likable too, yet memorable. Steinbeck only needs a paragraph or a few sentences about something they do, they say or even what they don’t say to let the characters come to life.
Most lives extend in a curve. There is a rise of ambition, a rounded peak of maturity, a gentle downward slope of disillusion and last a flattened grade of waiting for death. John Whiteside lived in a straight line. He was ambitionless; his farm not only made him a good living but paid enough so he could hire men to work it for him. He wanted nothing beyond what he had or could easily produce. He was one of the few men who could savour a moment while he held it. And he knew it was a good life he was leading, an uniquely good life.
As with most books by Steinbeck, not all ends well, but it is far less heart-breaking than some of his later works. And even when a story ended on a sad note (not all don’t), the feeling for me as a reader was one of melancholy more than of sadness, and it was overshadowed by how marvellously the story had been told. As I sat on the porch, I closed the book after each chapter, for I had to reflect on the people whose lives had been presented to me. With each of them, I had the sensation of wanting to meet them, although I am usually not a very social person. Even when a character has a negative trait, like the farmer who constantly brags about his wealth, you feel more sorry for him, rather than rush to judgment.
Maybe individual fates were less important, knowing that the valley was still there, in the book and in real life, and the valley would continue to be good to its people.
My personal favorite of all the people is Junius Maltby.
The people of the valley told many stories about Junius. Sometimes they hated him with the loathing busy people have for lazy ones, and sometimes they envied his laziness; but often they pitied him because he blundered so. No one in the valley ever realized that he was happy.
Whether you want a short introduction to Steinbeck or whether you have already read his better-known novels, I don’t think you will be disappointed by The Pastures of Heaven. Steinbeck’s books always leave me with the feeling as if I have learned a lot about humanity.
(Many thanks to Jacqueline Danson, a loyal reader of this blog, for sending me this book and several others. If you, too, want to support my blog, here is my wishlist. My North American readers, who have hitherto relented in the face of prohibitive postage fees, will be delighted to read that I shall move to Canada in December. And for that hard winter, I’ll really need some good books.)