To a God Unknown
Author: John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown has some of the lowest review scores of any Steinbeck book. I’d agree it’s not one of his best books (and by that I mean not one of the best books ever written) but it’s still not a bad book overall. At under 200 pages, it’s a bit longer than The Pearl or The Red Pony but still much quicker to read than several of his better known books. It’s got several hallmarks of other Steinbeck books, from the California setting, characters reacting to nature, and a male protagonist who others look to as a religious figure.
To A God Unknown tells the story of Joseph Wayne’s move from Vermont to California. Moving west when his father John (yes, John Wayne, roughly four years after the actor’s first film role) is ailing, Joseph settles into a large patch of land and seems incredibly happy. When his father dies (as expected), Joseph attributes his final comments about watching over his son and begins to ascribe a spiritual connection to the tree he built his new home under. Joseph’s family (three brothers as well as their wives and children) all move out west to live with Joseph.
The brothers are interesting, with one (Thomas) being a simple guy who understands animals better than people, another (Burton) is ultra-religious and becomes very paranoid both about Joseph’s friendliness toward local catholic Mexicans and his rituals towards his father tree. The youngest is Benjy, who’s described as being a drunk with a sweet singing voice who lulls women into caring for him and then seducing them. Burton and Benjy both end up causing some problems for Joseph, but many of the problems can also seem to be attributed to acts of god or Joseph himself.
The major events in To A God Unknown involve a giant fiesta being held at Joseph’s property, Joseph’s courtship of a woman named Elizabeth, and a drought. The end of the book is not particularly uplifting, and definitely undoes most of the goodwill that Joseph has earned with the reader throughout the book. In particularly, his treatment of his brother Thomas bothered me, though I suspect Steinbeck wasn’t considering it in favor of assigning blame to Thomas’s wife. If you buy into Joseph as a spiritual character, I expect you’ll enjoy this book a lot more but even looking at him as just a man I still thought it was an interesting story with a memorable setting.