Monday, April 16, 2012

Book Review: The Pearl by John Steinbeck

When I started my goal to read 40-50 books in 2012, I found that the majority of the books I started reading early in the year were written by non-American authors.  I seemed to be on a World Literature kick, if you will.  As I review my list of completed readings, I have discovered that the last six books I have read were written by American authors.  The sixth, and latest, book I have read is the John Steinbeck class, The Pearl.  A shorter novel, The Pearl is nonetheless a powerful novel that speaks to all readers of all generations in all cultures.

Unlike many of his other books, The Pearl is not a period piece in the classic Steinbeck fashion.  While the main character is poor, just like many of Steinbeck's protagonists, he is not poor because of the Great Depression or any other life catastrophe.  Kino is poor because his people are oppressed and that is the way it has always been for him.  A Native American, Kino and his family are often times cheated and taken advantage of by the white men who run the town.

Kino's troubles seem to be over when he finds the largest pearl ever discovered.  For a moment, it seems that all the good things that Kino and his wife, Juana, thought were impossible all of sudden came within their grasp.  However, with the hope and joy that comes with unanticipated wealth also comes evil and jealousy.  While Kino dreams of providing for Juana and their son, Coyotito, others plot how to steal his happiness from him.

The beautiful thing about The Pearl is that the Pearl of the World can be a symbol for any goal, any dream, or any ambition that any person might have.  A dream can be desirable up until the moment it is realized; after that, well, one must face the bad along with the good.  The pursuit of the dream can bring more trials than one realizes at first, and things more precious than the dream can be lost.  Kino learns this lesson the hard way, and the reader cannot help but feel an unsatisfying connection to him; unsatisfying because the reader identifies his own weaknesses in Kino.  The differences are not subtle, they are like flares firing into the sky on a clear, dark night.

It is because of this connection that the reader must keep reading Steinbeck's parable; it is so easy to identify with Kino that one must find out if he is going to realize his hopes and ambitions.  The reader pulls so hard for Kino because he feels that if Kino is able to succeed despite his weaknesses, then the reader will be able to also.

That is, however, not possible.  As Steinbeck so plainly shows us, one needs to realize personal weakness before success is possible.  Facing weaknesses in yourself leads to growth, and growth is what will lead to success.  There can be no shortcuts, even if the shortcuts seem sent by heaven.

Steinbeck's prose is brilliantly simple, in that it is complex yet easy to read.  It is complicated, but easy to understand.  Parents can read this story to their children and they will be able to understand.  This facet, this talent that is presented in all of Steinbeck's novels leave no doubt as to his place among the great American writers.

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