East of Eden

I’m going to go ahead and put East of Eden by John Steinbeck in the “should’ve read it a long time ago” category.  Some books I pick up based on recommendations of friends and peers. Others (i.e. this one) I hear some very intelligent classmates discussing all summer long, I nod along like I know what they’re talking about until I can rush off to the bookstore, buy myself a copy, and finally understand. I do wish I’d read this a long time ago, but I’m glad that I’ll forever relate this excellent book with the wonderful group of people I wrote stories with all summer long.

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This story follows two families through the parents childhood to their children’s adulthood.  If you are even a tiny bit familiar with the Cain and Abel story from the bible you’ll pick up on some biblical themes multiple times while reading (including a bit where they actually discuss the story…but it goes deeper than that).  This is the type of book that I’d really like to reread a few years down the line, then a few years after that, and a few after that. I imagine there will be themes that are impossible for me to relate to now that will ring very true when I’m in a different spot in my life.

With this read I particularly focused in on the “good” characters versus the “bad” characters. The good characters (the Abel’s of the story) seem to lack awareness. There was a naïveté that devalued their goodness and I couldn’t help but look down on a bit. Now, the “bad” characters (the Cain’s of the story) often acted in ways that I don’t understand or approve of. There was an edge that refused to be smoothed out within them, but while reading I couldn’t help but forgive them because they tortured themselves staring at the edge wondering how to get rid of it. There is a healthy medium, of course, but given the choice I’d rather get to know the self-aware, slightly tortured badness than the oblivious and unthinking good.

One thing that bothered me quite a bit with this book, almost from the get go, was how women are portrayed. There are a few exceptions within the Hamilton family but for the most part the women were either very religious, uptight, and unhappy or they were evil whores. It’s never mentioned in the story that while Cathy might be “missing something” that lets her feel and this makes her evil, she is one of the only independent female characters in the book. I don’t condone how she behaves throughout, but that’s mostly because I live in a time where if I’m severely injured, I can expect that people will help me without the expectation that I’ll marry them to save face. Some of her actions were inexplicably evil, but a lot of them struck me as a necessary to lead a life untethered to religion, men, or family.

This is a book you should read and when you do I want to hear all about your favorite characters, your least favorite characters, and what bits you related to the most. It has its flaws, but even those provide for deep thought and good conversation. I expect that a few years from now I’ll reread it and be astonished at the difference just a few years can make on one story. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting for someone to discuss it with.

Keep reading. Keep learning. Keep listening. Keep creating.

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