East of Eden
John Steinbeck (1952)
I savored every chapter in this classic of American literature, a tale of good versus evil for the ages. Years ago, I began reading the Steinbeck canon in chronological order, of which I’m about half-way through. East of Eden jumped ahead this past fall when my subscription series at Steppenwolf included Frank Galati’s stage adaptation, and I knew I wanted read the book before I saw the play. I’m so glad I did, as it allowed me to discover this wonderful work on its own terms.
Galati’s adaptation, like the 1955 James Dean movie before it, winnows down the 500-plus page novel to the climactic Cain and Abel story of Adam Trask and his twin sons Caleb and Aron; and while condensing the massive plot to a manageable night’s entertainment centering on sibling rivalry is understandable, it unfortunately discards much of what makes East of Eden a rich, rewarding reading experience.
Over the course of a century, three generations of Trask fathers and sons pass through the story, set in a northern California community based on Steinbeck’s own childhood in the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck tells his Genesis tale using a slate of finely drawn major and minor characters so human and so real. Among them is perhaps the most monstrously evil character I have ever encountered in the pages of a novel, Catharine Trask, a psychopath who poisons everything she touches.
With East of Eden, Steinbeck is at the height of his powers as a writer—the plotting is clever, the language commanding, the dialogue genuine, and the sense of place tangible and multifaceted enough to qualify as a character unto itself. Secondary characters Samuel Hamilton (the Salinas Valley stalwart who brings the Trask sons Caleb and Aron into the world and is quick to sense Cathy’s sinister presence) and Lee, the Cantonese cook who raises the boys) are two fascinating and entertaining characters, active witnesses to the story, whom I will long remember.
Hands down, my favorite book read in 2015.
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