Once There Was a War – John Steinbeck

The Nobel Award winning author, John Steinbeck often created themes of domestic economic struggle with such titles as East of Eden, Cannery Row, and Grapes of Wrath, but in the very center of his career, he took his pen to the European Theater of World War II as a war correspondent.  Later in his life, Steinbeck looked back at his time during the war and compiled several of the newspaper pieces he wrote into a book called Once There Was a War.

Steinbeck’s introduction started as nearly a paradox by saying the most famous war was mostly forgotten by the men who fought it.  He explains that the trauma, the urgency, the peril was experienced and acted on with instincts of war, and a fighter might not remember exactly how many barrels of the enemy were trained at them as they ran across fields, but perhaps, they also might forget at times, due to the fear that grips them as each step the soldier took was escaping death, while many of the comrades were not so lucky.

Steinbeck also adds that during times of war, many of the media are censored.  Partly because the soldier’s missions are treated as top-secret, any news the enemy might receive of an upcoming attack, or position of the allies could put many men in danger.  With somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Steinbeck adds that any news of less successful missions might reflect on commanding officers, so to protect their egos (and the correspondents), the failures, and the officers names were often struck from the record by censorship.  With America’s values of freedom of speech, someone today might think that the censorship then was unfair, but the correspondents did their best to follow the rules- nobody wanted to lose a shot a nice job in journalism after the war, and least of all, none of them wanted to be blamed for losing the war.

Steinbeck joined the war in 1943 and spent about a year in the action.  Through the book, the reader gets a first hand account of sailing from the US to England on a troopship, life at a bomber squadron in England, life in Tunisia, and missions to Italy.  The correspondent’s accounts give the reader, the ups and downs, the little-known pieces of war life, not known to someone living 75 years after the event.

My favorite pieces in the book were about a private named Big Train Mulligan.  Big Train was a driver in the army, he was a smart man and the soldier life suited him. He would do anything that was asked of him, but he also decided he loved his position as  driver in England better than any other option.  He loved it enough that he seemed to always mess up details when he was in line for a promotion, but not quite enough to lose the job.  That was the kind of guy he was.  He could have gone far in the army, he could have been an officer and led many men, but Big Train wasn’t interested in being responsible for other men, he just wanted to do his job.  He drove officers to and from appointments, and waited for them at the car until they required a ride to the next place.  Big Train somehow always attracted women as he waited at the cars, and he kept a big address book where he wrote each woman’s information into it.  When he drove the officers to a cramped house with tattered sheets and stiff beds, Big Train always had a woman from his book nearby where he would stay in a soft and comfortable bed and have a home cooked meal.  The women would stop at the car and talk to Big Train and he would reach into the officer’s belongings and pull a pack of cigarettes out for the girl, sometimes chocolate. The ladies loved the guy for this.  When the officers returned from the meeting to find their personal cigarettes or chocolates gone, Big Train would just explain that the woman was there and it seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do to offer her whatever he could find, and the officer agreed completely and no feelings were hurt.

Whether you’re a fan of WWII, Steinbeck, or just want a good book to read, this one fits the bill.  There was a nice range of emotion- fear, disgust, sadness, joy- this has it all. As we lose many WWII veterans to time, it is nice that we have these accounts Steinbeck has left us. Stories like these and from the veterans I’ve spoken to always send a chill down my spine and remind me of the enormous amount of respect these men and women earn.
Twitter- @blookworm


Part 2 – East of Eden – Steinbeck

For some, including me, a 600 page book can be a little intimidating.  I had a feeling I would put the book down halfway through and start on something else, but I could hardly put it down. Steinbeck’s characters, descriptions, and plot wrapped me up quickly and it was a great read. While it switched around a little from family to family, it could be difficult to keep up with.  Interestingly, Steinbeck wrote himself into the book, as his mother, Olive, was one of Samuel Hamilton’s daughters.  I liked that he was able to do that and it made it seem a little more real.  It makes me wonder where the line of fiction ends and truth begins.  Which characters were real?  Were the real characters really like they were in the novel?  Did the Trasks exist?

From where I left on my initial post, the Trask boys (Adam and his sons, Cal and Aron) moved into Salinas to take advantage of a better school system.  That also brought them closer to the mother who left them, Cathy/Kate.  Adam came back to life and decided he wanted to go into the ice/refrigeration business.  He tried an experiment to ship lettuce from California to New York on a train, but there were obstructions which ruined the shipment and Adam lost most of his fortune.  He still had the ice company which made a profit, so the family was not in financial trouble, just not as comfortable as before.  The citizens in Salinas ridiculed the Trask family and young Cal took it especially hard.  He decided to make a personal financial foray in beans.  The US was at the cusp of WWI and Cal partnered with Samuel Hamilton’s son, Will, to speculate on bean futures.  They convinced area farmers to plant beans and contracted to buy them at 5 cents/bushel while the going rate was around 3 cents.  As the war came at harvest season, they sold the beans to the British contractors and made 10 cents/bushel.  Cal had earned $15,000 on the deal after he payed back the initial loan he borrowed from Lee.  Cal decided to give the money to father to make up for the lettuce failure, but his father refused to accept it.  Cal was heartbroken and decided to burn the money.

Meanwhile, Aaron had dreams of becoming a priest and his vow of celibacy worried his girl, Abra.  He decided to take his high school exams a year early and that pleased his father.  Cal had a great struggle between his father’s rejection of the money and his brother’s praise.  Cal decided to ‘pay his brother back’ by taking him to a secret he learned.  He took Aron to meet their mother, Kate in her whorehouse.  As Aron had aspirations of priesthood, he took it pretty hard that he had come from a woman of that reputation.  He ended up running away to join the army efforts in WWI.  Adam was heartbroken and suffered a mild stroke.  Cal felt pretty guilty at how his plan had turned out.

SPOILER-As I suspected, a sad ending.  Cal’s plan ended up with his brother dying in the war, and their father, Adam having a massive stroke.  The book ends as Lee takes Cal to his father to beg for forgiveness.  It was a sad ending, but a moral arising from the novel is that each one of us is in control of our own destiny.  We have choices to help or hurt.  We have choices of good and evil. 

Steinbeck’s tale of human destinies was melted together with the American spirit.  Lee made a point in the book that everybody in the US was descended from a man who was running away from something, looking for something, something better than he had before, whether Chinese, Irish, or British.  American’s are born with a spirit of adventure and risk, and it can be an attribute that identifies us from other countrymen.  The combination of this American theme with the theme of the stories in Genesis of the Bible were an interesting mix.  Adam and Cathy: Adam and Eve, Cal and Aron: Cain and Abel.  Adam wanted the ranch to be a tribute, an Eden, to represent his love for Cathy, while their sons struggled with rejection and revenge.

It was a great read, Steinbeck did not disappoint.

Rating ********** 10/10

East of Eden – Steinbeck

First of all, Steinbeck.  One of my favorites.  I’ve read a few of his works, but now I’m chipping away at his masterpiece, East of Eden.  It’s written with a full range of emotions, history, and philosophy, it’s a complete package if there ever were one.  I’ve read a little background on the book, and it is said to be based on a family history of the writer, with a touch of the book of Genesis from the Bible.  Steinbeck said he worked hard on the book to bring all writing styles he’s learned into one piece. Based on his style and the previous works I’ve read, I’m preparing for a heartbreak.  He seems to open the world to a reader in the beginning of a piece and then chips away glee to show the sorrow core as the pages turn until there is little left but a dash of hope.  I have no idea why I like this method, but the expression and descriptions his words bring to the books hook me.

East of Eden begins with a rich description of the Salinas Valley.  It’s in a beautiful area of California, very close to Big Sur, one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in my life.  Nestled between mountains, the Salinas Valley around the turn of the 20th century was mostly farmers who relied much on the chancy weather to bring the crops in.  The Hamilton family was unfortunate to settle land without a proper water source, but the patriarch, Samuel, was a handy man and made due by inventing and providing services to the other farmers of the valley.  Samuel was a wise, joyous man, and had a shrewd wife, Liza, with an unrelenting love of the lord.  Her mind was fixed on salvation and the idea that not much in life mattered, but the afterlife in heaven was all the worth.  They were a neat balance of each other, raising seven children, three girls and four boys.

The Trask family was from Connecticut.  Half-brothers, Adam and Charles, grew up close, but quite differently.  Charles, the younger, was competitive and always better at everything than his older sibling.  Adam was not competitive, and was reserved to the fact that Charles was better in all ways.  Their father, Cyrus, fought in a battle in the Civil war, and his fabricated stories of service grew to a point that he became a respected point of reference for many military men, and eventually served in office for the war department.  Adam was told from a young age he would be a soldier, but was confused and jealous of the fact that his father made no such plans for the younger brother.  Before Adam was sworn into the US Cavalry, Cyrus admitted that the army could not make a man out of Charles, he had no fear and would not benefit from it; which is why he pushed Adam so hard to join.  After two five-year stints in the cavalry, Adam returned home to Charles and found their father had died a rich man in Washington DC.

Cathy Ames was described as an unusually beautiful but evil-child.  Her parents hardly noticed, but at an early age she learned how to manipulate people to do as she pleased.  She burned her parents alive in their house one night and ran off to join a brothel.  The manager saw her beauty and decided to keep her for himself.  He rented a house for her and paid her an ‘allowance’. This was not enough and she was always asking for more until they got drunk one night and she admitted that she had no love for him and she was using him.  The manager decided to take her to the brothel circuit to make her work and on the way there was a struggle and he beat her to an inch of her life.

The Trask brothers found Cathy crawling onto their porch that night and Adam decided to nurse her back to health.  Adam was smitten and asked her to marry him after she was healed.  She knew there would be trouble if the brothel manager found her so she agreed.  Adam decided they should move to California and with Cathy refusing, they settled in the Salinas Valley.

Upon settling, Adam decided to buy a ranch and renovate it to build an ‘Eden’ for his love.  Cathy was pregnant, but was unusually cold and distant during the pregnancy.  She told Adam she had no plans to stay, and that she would leave as soon as she had the child.  Adam was so in love, he ignored her words and said she would feel much better after she has the child.  After Cathy had twins, she packed her bags and shot Adam as she left, ending up working at a whorehouse in Salinas, and eventually owning it after gaining the manager’s trust, then poisoning her.  Adam became stuck in a cloudy world and paid little attention to his sons.  The Chinese servant, Lee, did most of the child rearing that first year.  Soon Samuel Hamilton (he had helped with the child birth) heard that the twin boys still didn’t have names after a year so he visited the Trask farm and got physical with Adam, trying to shake some life back in him.  It seemed to work and they decided to name the boys Caleb and Aaron.  While discussing the possible names for the boys, they brought out the Bible and discussed the story of Cain and Abel.  Lee, Adam, and Samuel had a long and deep discussion of the verse.  Lee presented the idea that rejection brought forth anger and crime for the rejection.  Lee proposed that if rejection were omitted from life, there would be little, if any crimes and the world would be a better place.  Upon further search for meaning, Lee visited his noble elder scholars and had a two-year examination of the story of Cain and Abel.  They even learned Hebrew to find more meaning in the words.  An enlightening epiphany grew out of this as they found many religious were teaching that it was an order or an automatic forgiveness to avoid sin by using the translation of English words, ‘Do thou’ or ‘Thou shalt’.  Upon translation, the elders found the original word, timshel in Hebrew, to mean ‘Thou mayest’.  The difference being that every man has a choice.  A choice to sin, a choice to strive for greatness.

Currently halfway through, and I’m not disappointed.  More to come.