East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Yeah, I know.  It’s not a new book.  And, as a matter of fact,  I have read it before.  But that was over twenty years ago, and I was hoping that my, ahem…maturity… might add something to my understanding of the story.

Boy, was I right.   I liked the book before.  Now it has moved to my all-time favorites list.

East of Eden is basically a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel.  It centers around two families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks.  Sam Hamilton is a man of deep emotions, a man of passions.  Adam Trask?  Not so much.

Nevertheless, it is Adam who marries the not-so-sweet Cathy, Adam who ends up being father to twin boys, Caleb (Cal) and Aron, Adam’s story around which the novel revolves.  Adam Trask is never really grounded in anything, so his boys must search for identity on their own and under the guidance of their Chinese servant, Lee.  Just as in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, Cal Trask is the outsider, the one searching for acceptance.  He’s worried that his life is predestined and that the evil he carries with him because of who his mother is will doom him in the end.  Under Lee’s loving and subtle guidance, Cal finally receives the words he needs from his father.  He is not inherently evil.  His parentage does not doom him.  He has a choice.

I have seen two movies about East of Eden, one of which stars James Dean.  Since I live in the area where Dean was born, I thought that would be a big deal, but Dean’s story tells of Cal Trask’s search for identity and acceptance.  The other was a mini-series starring Jane Seymour and chronicling the life of Cathy, Adam’s wife turned madam.  I liked that one better because it included a lot more of the novel’s details and, I have to admit, because I was familiar with Seymour from Somewhere in Time and what I saw from her in East of Eden was so totally opposite that it blew me away.  I think that’s what drew me into the novel so much on this second read. Cathy was perfectly happy being the evil madam that she was, and her character was a stark contrast to that of  Cal and also to Sam Hamilton, whose hand she bites as he helps her deliver the twins.

The younger English teachers I work with haven’t read East of Eden for the first time yet.  They read modern things.  They’ve read Harry Potter, which is of similar length.  And, I have to admit, this year read Atlas Shrugged and An Echo in the Bone before I revisited Steinbeck.  The kids at school always like Of Mice and Men, I think because there’s nobility in it, and that’s why I wanted to read East of Eden again.  I’m always looking for books to recommend to them, and I wanted the story to be fresh in my mind.  I think they’d really like East of Eden, despite its length, if I gave them my Cliff Notes version to get them interested in the story line.  Who among us doesn’t want to be told that they have a choice about how their lives turn out?  Those of us who are older, except maybe the Adam Trasks among us, have already figured that out, but the kids?  They need to figure out the choice thing for themselves, and sometimes literature gives them a non-threatening way to do just that.

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December 2009
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