I stumbled into my college major in English literature based on a bad assumption about the course requirements. However, I ended up enjoying it even though I’m a slow reader and had way too much to try to wade through to actually get good grades. The challenge I accepted often was to read the introductions to the books that the academic versions back then seemed to have. These were usually written by critics or academics. Then through artful writing, I would try to convince the professors that I not only read the works but had something unique to say about them myself. This got me by, but I probably missed a lot and also hardened a habit I’ve had of never finishing a book I wasn’t enjoying.
The first time I remember doing this was with John Steinbeck’s novella, The Red Pony. At the time I was probably ten or eleven and the same age as the central character in this classic. By then I had read every dog and horse story in the basement level children’s section of the Richmond Public Library.
I’m not sure where the volume came from, but The Red Pony was in the house and I thought I would give it a try as my first grown up book. It was short (about 130 pages) and had a picture of the red pony on the cover. I’m sure I was expecting a heartwarming happy ending as was common in the childrens’ books. However, I gave up quickly and didn’t make it through the first of the four stories about the young boy Jody and life on a small ranch in the Salinas Valley of California.
Again, I’m not sure how the book turned up recently…but we’ve been shuffling things around trying to give ourselves more “space” during the pandemic. It is the same volume I attempted as a kid sixty-some years ago. It was old then. Steinbeck wrote it in the mid-30’s and this illustrated edition was published in 1945, in July of the year I was born right before the first atomic bomb was about to end World War II.
After reading the first chapter I almost gave up again. The picture of the red pony on the cover gives no clue to Steinbeck’s central theme. I’ve concluded that maybe I gave up all those years ago not because I hadn’t developed an adequate enough vocabulary to understand it, but rather because I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to handle it.
It’s described as a novella and the chapters aren’t really chapters as much as the division of four stories held together but two things. First, each of the stories is about Jody. The second is that each is about the cycle of life and death and how violence can enter both at the beginning and the end.
The most obvious thing about Steinbeck’s writing here is the vividness of his description of a small ranch during this era. Animals are a big part of it. Horses are part of each of the stories but there are dogs, hogs, cattle, gophers, vultures, songbirds, and mice mentioned. In fact, mice that have fattened up during the winter at the bottom of hay stacks create some of the tension in the last few pages about the boy Jody’s future.
As a boy in the first quarter of his life attempting this book, I don’t doubt what drove me from it was the matter-of-factness of all this death. The same words in the final quarter of my life are what dragged me through it. Instead of disturbing me, they make me wonder what I have left to make my remaining time meaningful and less frightening.