Friday, May 11, 2012

What I'm Reading Now: Of Mice and Men

No, I’m not repeating high school.  But I had recently read an article in the NewYork Times by an English teacher at a public school in Manhattan.  Claire Needell Hollander said this:

We’d just finished John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” When we read the end together out loud in class, my toughest boy, a star basketball player, wept a little, and so did I. “Are you crying?” one girl asked, as she crept out of her chair to get a closer look. “I am,” I told her, “and the funny thing is I’ve read it many times.”

I knew about Steinbeck’s story. I’d seen clips from themovie with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise.  But I had never actually read the book. I wanted to know what, in a story written over seventy years ago, could cause a teenage basketball player to cry in public.   So I picked up a copy from my local library.

Turns out Of Mice and Men is more the size of a novella.  Actually, I guess it is a novella. It was written in 1937 and takes place during the Great Depression.  And here’s what surprised me:  I couldn’t put it down.

Of Mice and Men is the story of George and Lennie, a couple of itinerant ranch workers who are emotionally dependent on each other. Lennie is “not very bright,” as George is always pointing out. But he is kind, loyal, and strong. George is the leader of the pair, quick tempered, but looks out for Lennie. The two share a dream of saving enough money to buy a small house on a bit of land where they can raise their own food along with chickens and rabbits.

As the story opens, they are on their way to a new job, having been run out of town and their former jobsite when Lennie’s love of touching soft things (puppies, rabbits) got him in trouble for touching the dress of a woman who then accused him of rape.

Steinbeck uses “place” to put the reader into the story, describing a clearing by a pond, the bunkhouse, the harness room using simple language but evoking a clear, emotional picture. The dialogue is rife with conflict and tension, often lying just beneath the surface. The characters – Lennie and George in particular, but even the secondary characters like Slim, Candy, and Crooks – are men both flawed and beguiling.

John Steinbeck
I read Steinbeck’s novella both as someone who loves to read and as a writer learning to hone my craft.  As a reader, I am totally engaged and find myself reaching for it whenever I have a few minutes. As a writer, I am in awe of the seeming simplicity of the prose and the complexity of the characters.  The dialogue is of the age (1930’s) and reflects a culture of men in a man’s world; but every bit of it moves the story forward and offers an insight into a world into which I would never have thought I’d care to venture.

John Steinbeck is an icon among American writers. I think that, because of when he wrote and the topics he chose to write about, I never thought his work would be emotionally accessible to me. But I was wrong. After reading Of Mice and Men, I am now eager to try Grapes of Wrath.

If you want to experience one of the great American writers, but don’t want to take a lot of time away from your regular reading indulgences, give Of Mice and Men a try. You might be as surprised as I was by your reaction to this little seventy-plus-year-old story. And yes, I get it why that teenage boy wept at the end. 

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