By Chet Yarbrough
East of Eden
By John Steinbeck
Narrated by Richard Poe
The literary genius of John Steinbeck seeps into one’s mind like the wisdom of the bible. “East of Eden” is a peon to humanity; i.e. every human being has a choice, the choice to be good or evil.
Mixing and matching diverse personalities are a part of Steinbeck’s oeuvre. Steinbeck’s characters are knife edges; some are sharp and dangerous; others dull and benign. Steinbeck shows that human edges are sharpened and dulled by living. An audio book listener sinks into the first few chapters of “East of Eden” thinking they know how the story ends. However, each new character reveals some new facet of humanity that turns and twists the story.
Cathy Ames seems destined for the gallows, the Trask family for familial murder, the Hamilton family for greatness, and Chinaman Lee for enslavement as an American’ minority. What really happens to these characters is life; living in America with men and women making choices about who they are and what they become.
Steinbeck invents characters that show the best and worst of being human without making life a morality play. His description of place and character is the equal of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, and C. Bronte. A listener cares what happens to Steinbeck’s characters. The essential beauty and ugliness of Steinbeck’s characters intimidates anyone who thinks they know something about humanity.
Children of the world are raised in the happiest families, saddest families, broken families, no-parent families; in enslaved minorities, and blue collar majorities. But, children who survive become someone or no one.
Steinbeck raises questions about life’s choices and chances. Steinbeck writes a story showing that becoming oneself is both genetic and environmental. Life’s journey is fundamentally a matter of human choices even though genetics play a role.
Four real American tragedies bare witness to the truth of Steinbeck’s fiction. From outward appearance James Holmes’ parents love their son. James is a bright student who may have inherited a form of schizophrenia from his father. Whether ill from schizophrenia, or not, James chooses to murder 12 and injure 70 people in a Colorado movie theater in 2013.
AS NOTED IN WIKIPEDIA: The Columbine High School massacre was a school shooting that occurred on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Columbine, an unincorporated area of Jefferson County, Colorado. The perpetrators, senior students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, murdered 12 students and one teacher. They injured 21 additional people, and three more were injured while attempting to escape the school. After exchanging gunfire with responding police officers, the pair subsequently committed suicide.
Of course, the most most recent reminder of Americans who make bad choices is the Broward County school shooting in Florida. Nicholas Jacob Cruz is a child who is raised by loving parents who adopted him and his brother. His adopting father dies from a heart attack when Nicholas is 6 years old. His adopting mother chooses to raise the boys on her own. She dies from the flu just months before the Parkland high-school shooting. When Nicholas’s mother dies, he and his brother go to live with friends.
Nicholas is known to be a troubled teenager. He is expelled from two high-schools. At 19, Nicholas chooses to return to his high school and murder seventeen adults and children.
A deadly character in “East of Eden” is Cathy Ames. She comes from a two parent “Ozzie and Harriet” family that owns a relatively successful tanning business. Cathy Ames is loved by her family. She is an only child, doted on by her Mother, and loved by her father. Cathy Ames chooses to murder her parents, become a prostitute and Madam, and live her idea of the American dream. Cathy Ames reminds one of many young people who make bad choices in America.
One of the most laudable characters in “East of Eden” is Samuel Hamilton. He is an Irish immigrant that comes to Southern California, has a past that touches the evil of a “Cathy Ames kind of relationship”, but breaks away to become a sage and seer in Salinas County. Hamilton becomes the patriarch of a big family that is poor in wealth but rich in love, respect, and familial affection. Samuel Hamilton lives a different American dream than illustrated by Cathy Ames.
The Trask family is between these two extreme examples of humanity. Adam Trask and Cathy Ames are married and have two children– twin boys that seem to reincarnate Adam’s troubled relationship with a brother.
Cathy Ames shoots her husband after the twin boy’s births. She abandons her wounded husband and newly born children.
Chinaman Lee is an outlier observing and rejecting the panoply called the American dream His philosophical belief is that good and evil exist in all humans; i.e. good and evil defined as human choice rather than fate, or God’s pre-ordination.
If one is to listen to only one audiobook classic this year, this is the one.