By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Richard Poe
The literary genius of John Steinbeck seeps into one’s mind like the wisdom of the bible. However, “East of Eden” is a tribute to humanism; 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 useless. Steinbeck shows that human edges are sharpened and dulled by living. An audiobook 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, i.e. Cathy Ames seems destined for the gallows, the Trask family for familial murder, the Hamilton family for greatness, and “Chinese” American Lee for wisdom forged by discrimination and intelligence. What really happens to these characters is life; people living in America at the turn of the 20th century are making choices about who they are and what they will 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 writers like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, and Bronte. A listener cares what happens to Steinbeck’s characters. The concreteness and beauty of Steinbeck’s writing intimidates anyone who thinks they know something about literature.
Children of the world are raised in the best and worst conditions of life; i.e. in the happiest families, the saddest families, in enslaved minorities, in blue-collar majorities, in one parent, two parent and no parent families. Children 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; i.e. life’s journey is fundamentally made of human choices even though genetics play a primary role.
The ugliest character in “East of Eden” is Cathy Ames. She comes from a two parent “Ozzie and Harriet” family that owns a relatively successful leather 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.
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 of the southwest. Hamilton is 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 the one chosen 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 his brother. Cathy Ames shoots her husband soon after the twin’s birth. She abandons her wounded husband and newly born children. Asian Lee is an outlier, a servant of the Trask family, observing the American dream panoply in light of a philosophical belief that good and evil exist in all humans; i.e. good and evil defined as a God-given or human choice rather than a human fate or pre-ordination. These life stories end in bangs and whimpers forged by genetic heritability and an inherent human right to choose between good and evil.
If one is to listen to only one audio book classic this year, this is the one.