So far in my reading life, Steinbeck has been something of a mixed bag for me. I HATED "The Pearl," which was my first encounter with him, but that could very well be because my eighth grade English teacher made us read it three or four times over the course of studying it, which I did because I was a good little rule-follower. Again, this loathing could be misplaced and not Steinbeck's fault, but I do so detest "The Pearl." But I digress. My second encounter with Steinbeck was much better. The Grapes of Wrath was assigned as summer reading before my senior year of high school. At that point, I had a terrible track record with summer reading (despite being a rule-follower), probably because I was too busy reading what I WANTED to read during the summer rather than all the assigned reading which I diligently, and almost religiously, read during the school year. Imagine my surprise, then, when The Grapes of Wrath became not only the first summer reading book I ever actually finished but also was a book I rather enjoyed despite it coming from the same author who produced the oh-so-reprehensible "The Pearl." A while back (possibly years? my, time does fly), my book club read East of Eden. I didn't know quite how I felt about the novel and decided to reserve judgment until I could read it again over a shorter period of time.
When the Classics Circuit announced a Steinbeck tour, I knew I had to participate. While contemplating what book to choose, I will admit to being heavily influenced in my selection by Lost; ultimately I chose Of Mice and Men because of Lost (if you want to know how Lost is connected to the novel, you can go here. But be warned: there are spoilers for the novel and, depending on how you see it, the show itself.).
If Of Mice and Men is about anything, it is about dreams. Specifically, it is about the dream that George and Lennie have to own their own piece of land that they can work, control, and belong to. This dream of owning their own farm is really a thinly veiled desire for home and belonging, and it is their dream as a representation of home and belonging that becomes so appealing to other characters in the novel (especially Candy, an old, soon-to-lose-his-usefullness farmhand and Crooks, the ostracized Black stable hand). In typical Steinbeck fashion, however, this dream is not easily achieved, and many, many obstacles stand in the way of George and Lennie getting their farm.
Ironically, Lennie, who thinks about and clings to this dream more than anyone else in the novel, himself is probably the biggest and most consistent obstacle to achieving the dream. He longs to have rabbits he can care for, he is constantly telling George how he can't wait to live off the "fatta the land," and he is very, very strong, but Lennie has the mind and understanding of a child and often finds himself in trouble without knowing why. George, for reasons left unrevealed to the reader. takes care of Lennie, tries to protect him, and, ultimately, shows him kindness and love, but even he can't keep Lennie from destroying the possibility of achieving their dream.
I was reminded of two other works of fiction while reading Of Mice and Men: The Heart is a Lonely Hunger, by Carson McCullers, and East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. George and Lennie's relationship made me think about John Singer's friendship with Spiros Antanopolos; there's not really much of a comparison there, but this friendship from McCullers' novel popped into my mind several times as I read Of Mice and Men. It was the character of Crooks that reminded me of East of Eden. Like he does with Lee in East of Eden, Steinbeck writes Crooks to directly contradict many of the racial stereotypes and prejudices that would have been prevalent in the 1930s. Both Lee (a Chinese man) and Crooks (a Black man) are atypical according to stereotype, and I wondered while reading about Crooks, as I did while reading about Lee, what Steinbeck was trying to do with these two characters. I'd love to read more about it, so if you know of some resources, please let me know!
Overall, I really enjoyed this novel, which makes my Steinbeck experience more positive than negative or ambiguous. I think this would be a great introduction to Steinbeck (unlike "The Pearl"...okay, I'll stop complaining about "The Pearl" now): it showcases his writing style (there are some truly beautiful descriptions), it is set in California, a place he comes back to again and again, it deals with the struggling working American man, and many of the themes and ideas touched upon in the novel are expressed and fleshed out in Steinbeck's longer works.