If the books of my life were sorted like a Barnes & Noble, Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and East of Eden would be on their own shelf labeled “Gut-Wrenching Dark Family Sagas.” Anna Karenina has the passion and fierceness of Russian literature, Hundred Years has breathtaking, exotic magical realism, and East of Eden is…American. How did it end up on this shelf?
True confession: I avoided reading 20th century American literature for as long as possible. The smattering I got in high school convinced me it was depressing and awful and not nearly as nice as British mystery writers. Who doesn’t want to read Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie all day?!
But then I realized I couldn’t put off the Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck any longer if I wanted to be a well-rounded reader. Fast-forward a couple years…
I still don’t care for Hemingway,
Faulkner is palatable,
but I’ve fallen in love with Steinbeck.
Someone should burst my bubble now if his other stuff isn’t as powerful as East of Eden. I only started with this mammoth because a friend (who had read it before) recommended it for our book group, but it blew me away. I read the last page and slipped into a daze like a ton of bricks had hit me between the eyes.
The saga follows the lives of the Hamiltons (Steinbeck’s mother’s family) and the Trasks (their…friends?). Over the course of 600 pages, two parallel Cain and Abel stories emerge: half-brothers Charles and Adam Trask, and their twin sons (yes, you read that correctly – talk about awkward) Cal and Aron.
The book hinges on the Hebrew word timshel and how it’s used in God’s injunction to Cain. Is Cain destined, ordered, or allowed to conquer evil? Regardless of your own theological leanings, East of Eden presents a fascinating case for how these mindsets can shape the way we live. If our lives are stories, how much agency do we have in writing the next chapter?
If these questions interest you, you should run to the nearest bookstore, library, or Amazon prime account and snag East of Eden. You won’t regret it. To answer my earlier question about how Steinbeck ended up on the same mental shelf as Tolstoy and Marquez, I think it’s because these are all stories that wrestle with questions about human nature in sweeping, family-centric, saga style. All three were also unexpected page-turners, which is impressive for their combined 1,800 pages.
But I think for me, there was something about all three that felt like fine whiskey. Each story went down smooth, but with a bite that lingered long after I closed the cover. And that’s a good taste.
Bonus: In the middle of writing this, I realized that 1) East of Eden is [reportedly] Marcus Mumford’s favorite book, and 2) their song “Timshel” is a tribute to East of Eden. So get swept away and have a good cry with me before, after, and while you read the book.