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The Pastures of Heaven

Originally published in 1932 by Cape & Smith; then Brewer, Warren, & Putman; and finally in 1935 by Covici-Friede.

The Pastures of Heaven is John Steinbeck’s second work, a series of interconnected stories (the short-story cycle) set around an idyllic, arcadian place in the Salinas River valley of California and its percolation of residents. Steinbeck’s own experience was to grow up in its proximity. Oftentimes, a place we call home during our childhood can have a most profound and long-lasting, centralizing effect. As we age, it is common for this sense of natal home to become stronger and romanticized, to become more than a place we lived or continue to live for a time—it is home, a word that implies so much more than a region or an environment; it implies relations with people of similar and yet very dissimilar types and personalities, but ones that are indeed memorable.

The Pastures of Heaven, Las Pasturas del Cielo, are a green meadow of rolling plain that is embraced by beautiful California hills in the Salinas River valley. They give a sense of comfort with the gentle sloping of the plain and the strong, impenetrable solidity of the hills. When outsiders first view this region they are struck with wondrous calm.

“Holy Mother,” [the Spanish corporal] whispered. “Here are the green pastures of Heaven to which our Lord leadeth us.” (p. 4)

They wonder, is this a place I can set down my roots and live a peaceful life, extending that peace to my future offspring and descendants, leaving a legacy? Will these hills protect me and give me succor, and these valleys nourish me and give me sustenance?

The characters introduced briefly in each story seek out that succor and sustenance in the Pastures of Heaven. Whatever difficulties they escaped or challenges they grappled previously in other places, they felt the remains of those worries and residue of traumas dissipate once they set their eyes upon this region. The dream they envision is unachievable of course, but their hearts feel the pull and protection of the peaceful area. They seek the solace that they imagine can soothe their souls and create a space for their perpetual homestead.

John Steinbeck grew up in this region that engraved a deep mark on his soul and is evident in his works throughout his career. Geological nature, while constant for ourselves in our lifetimes, can create weather patterns and storm systems that wreak havoc on a person who seeks solace and permanence. Human beings are subject to the inconsistency and chaos of natural elements and disasters, having to fight to survive. This notion of the constancy of geology also conflicts with the fluid and dynamic nature of geography, forever moving borders and peoples to meet the needs of the assemblage of whatever current power establishment. While we learn throughout our lives that individual people can affect us directly and indirectly and we can become used to navigating the expectations of our neighbors, it seems we are frequently surprised or mystified when events force us away from a place that was magical, protective, home.

Immigration, emigration, refuge/refugee. These words are frequently brought up and frequently debated. Rather than words or concepts or items on the table to be debated by the powerful few, the connotation of these words is the defining of people from a place. The movement, the diaspora of people: people who are pressured out of their seemingly permanent homes through directly violent (war, ecological crises) or indirectly violent (economically unsustainable) reasons. Despite the constant discussion of yet another group of refugees, it still seems to be assumed that the idea of a home should be permanent. That refugees seeking refuge should not be accepted because they belong to somewhere else. Yet somehow reality exposes a different truth: that having a home is so fleeting and so dependent upon events that transpire around us. While the inference of a home suggests permanence, in actuality and lived experience, a home is, like our neighbors, quite non-permanent. Maybe the where we’ve been isn’t as important as the experience we gain from having been there. The Battle homestead of The Pastures of Heaven reveals this impermanence:

There was something fearsome about the gaunt old house with its staring vacant windows. The white paint fell off in long scales; the shingles curled up shaggily. (p. 9)

Life without change isn’t living. And living requires maintenance.

text/review content © copyright 2023 Jean A. Turman, Lucid Style

Steinbeck, John. The Pastures of Heaven. New York: Penguin Books, 1932, 1982.

Cup of Gold

John Steinbeck

February 27, 2022 || by Jean A. Turman

20th century flower Steinbeck flower hero flower Bildungsroman flower fiction

The first read of the John Steinbeck canon begins with the tale of the swashbuckling pirate, Henry Morgan.

Cup of Gold by John Steinbeck