Joyce Lagow's Reviews > To a God Unknown

To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck
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Apr 20, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: literature

Steinbeck wrote a number of California novels. The early ones feature lyrical descriptive prose of the land, whether of the Salinas Valley or the Pacific Coast. Clearly Steinbeck loved the area, had a real passion for the valleys, the vegetation, the animals and the people who lived there. But while almost all of his other California novels that focused on the land and the people who lived on it were gently affectionate, To A God Unknown is a very different bird. The title is taken from an adaptation of a hymn to the god Prajapati from the Hindu Rig-Veda. And while the hymn is innocuous enough, it really is a foreshadowing of what is to come.[return][return]Steinbeck used his initial chapters and prefaces to set the emotional mood of his works. In To A God Unknown, practically from the first chapter, the mood is one of a foreboding, as Joseph Wayne takes leave of his father who blesses him in a vaguely described but clearly unusual way, deliberately meant, I m sure, to evoke Hebrew Testament patriarchs. From there on, the mood just intensifies, as Wayne finds land that is his so much so that there is a passage that can easily be interpreted as his copulation with the earth.[return][return]From old-timers, Indian/Hispanic residents of the valley, Joseph learns of years when there was a terrible drought when the land died and the cattle died and the people left. But Wayne is convinced that it will never happen again to his land. There is an old oak on the land, underneath which Wayne builds his house. One day, he feels a presence in the oak, and is convinced that somehow his father is there. He receives a letter from his brothers telling of the passing of the old man and how at the end there was nothing more the father wanted than to see John s new land. The brothers, two of whom are married, come out to join Joseph in California, buy adjacent land, and jointly farm. One brother, Burton, is a fundamentalist Christian, and in his religious fanaticism lie the seeds of the outcome of this story.[return][return]The years pass Joseph takes a wife, Elizabeth the farms prosper but still there is no relief from the absolute certainty that disaster is ahead, that some appalling calamity awaits. Partially, Steinbeck achieves this in his dialogue, which seems perfectly natural to the characters but is  off  somehow not right, strange. [return][return]The tension becomes practically unbearable; the catastrophe strikes. And the resolution is both inevitable, satisfying, and unsettling at the same time.[return][return]I did not find To A God Unknown an easy read on the contrary, I had to put it down for a while because I just could not bear what I knew was coming. This is one of Steinbeck s most powerful and disturbing works, and will throw off those who are used to his more affectionate books such as Tortilla Flat. Yet it is an outstanding example of how mood can be determined and sustained by great writing.
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