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.