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The Long Valley (1938)
by John Steinbeck
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Considering how prolific John Steinbeck was in a near-forty-year writing career, it's a bit surprising to realise that The Long Valley is one of only two short story collections he authored (the other being his sophomore publication The Pastures of Heaven). The only other contender, the four stories of The Red Pony (published as a novella), can be disqualified because they are included in The Long Valley, along with eleven other stories.
It might just be it's not his medium, for though The Long Valley is a capable and interesting collection, it never really strikes you hard. The opening story, 'The Chrysanthemums', is written in such a way that you expect more profundity from its denouement than you get. The same is true of 'The White Quail', 'The Snake' and 'The Raid', although 'Flight' has a nice technique in how it represents the changing power dynamics between Pepé, the wildcat and the mountain lion. Steinbeck's writing and particularly his characterisation are always good, but in these initial stories you are left wanting just that little bit more.
The second movement of the collection is an improvement, and the stories in this cluster have endings that match their writing. 'The Harness' and 'The Vigilante' have some rewarding potency, though 'Johnny Bear' is perhaps the best – if you can accept the slight absurdity in its premise. 'Breakfast' and 'Saint Katy the Virgin' are the oddities of the collection, with 'The Murder' straying towards that territory also.
The final four stories of The Long Valley are those which had comprised The Red Pony a few years earlier. Again, the writing and characterisation are of high quality, and the pathos drawn out of Jody's coming-of-age experiences is sincere and rewarding. In these stories, Steinbeck balances his romanticism with a cold-eyed awareness of the brutality in the world, an approach he would use to greater effect in his later novels and novellas. As I suggested earlier, the author seemed to fancy himself more in that long-form medium. Steinbeck can walk in a short story, but for all his qualities he doesn't often leave a footprint.
I read the Red Pony years back, but forgot how brutal it was. At least I had a warning due to the brutality of the stories preceding it. Steinbeck is a legend and there's good reason for it. His pacing and phrasing and themes might not work in the hands of a lesser writer, but that's not the case here. Each story in this collection is dark, but each is beautiful in its own brutal way.
My edition of The Long Valley omits The Red Pony stories, as well as "Saint Katy the Virgin", so I'll have to seek those elsewhere. To judge only from what's left, Steinbeck's talent doesn't seem as magical in the shorter form. He is too heavy on symbolism, too light on subtlety. I am still a fan of these though, for displaying the usual empathy and understanding that he shows his characters. In several of them he is exploring the psychology behind real life episodes that intrigued him.
The Chrysanthemums - a woman feels the limitations of her existence, the containment of her potential.
The White Quail - a wife extrapolates her sense of self upon her environment, to the exclusion of her husband.
Flight - a boy's path to maturity also leads him to his fate.
The Snake - a mysterious incident unsettles a laboratory technician's quiet mind. Reads like a prequel to 'Cannery Row'.
Breakfast - reads like the memory of a perfect moment when Steinbeck knew a feeling of deep peace. A story requires conflict, but this vignette serves as a clue to life's deepest mystery.
The Raid - explores the psyche of Communists who strive to meet in secret and take a beating for their effort.
The Harness - when a man's overbearing wife dies, he is freed of the rules she imposed. Maybe.
The Vigilante - a man participating in a lynch mob doesn't recognize guilt when he feels it.
Johnny Bear - an autistic savant mentally records private conversations to earn whiskey. This was my favourite story in this collection, minus that clunker of a final line. No subtlety.
The Murder - a wife becomes increasingly viewed like a farm animal, to be trained and managed to properly fulfill her role. An opportunity to turn this around is lost.
I tried a couple of stories from this anthology, but Steinbeck and I have grown apart so much over the years, that I just didn't want to read any more of them.
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A Penguin Classic First published in 1938, this volume of stories collected with the encouragement of his longtime editor Pascal Covici serves as a wonderful introduction to the work of Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck. Set in the beautiful Salinas Valley of California, where simple people farm the land and struggle to find a place for themselves in the world, these stories reflect Steinbeck's characteristic interests: the tensions between town and country, laborers and owners, past and present. Included here are the O. Henry Prize-winning story "The Murder"; "The Chrysanthemums," perhaps Steinbeck's most challenging story, both personally and artistically; "Flight," "The Snake," "The White Quail," and the classic tales of "The Red Pony." With an introduction and notes by John H. Timmerman. For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)813.52 — Literature English (North America) American fiction 20th Century 1900-1944
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An edition of this book was published by Recorded Books.
Lots to enjoy in this collection, and quite a bit of diversity in topics! "The Red Pony", is of course, the jewel of this book, and should be read by everyone, often! "The Snake" and "Johnny Bear" are creepy and bordering on a Twilight Zone type of vibe. "Saint Katy the Virgin" was hilarious! And "The Harness", well that one hit home for me.
I really enjoyed reading this slowly, and took my time letting each story soak in. Very glad that I did! ( )