Somehow, To a God Unknown escaped my attention until now. I’m not sure why. I know I didn’t disqualify it because Steinbeck, who was born in 1902, could not reliably remember the time in which it’s set (roughly 1903-1905). Maybe I thought the book was too mystical for my purposes, which it definitely is not. In any case, although it’s the least popular of Steinbeck’s California novels, To a God Unknown is in print and widely available in libraries throughout the world. It belongs between numbers 34 and 35 in the retabulated California canon.
To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck. Robert O. Ballou (1933), 325 pp.
Joseph Wayne, a strong-willed bachelor in his thirties, realizes that the family farm in Vermont is too small to support him and his three brothers. When he tells his elderly father that he’s moving to California, the old man blesses his son and suggests that after his death his spirit may join him. Joseph establishes the new ranch in a small valley in southern Monterey County. He soon makes friends with local folks, including Juanito, who goes to work for him. And he develops a deep and almost mystical attachment to the land. After his father dies, Joseph’s brothers come west and homestead the parcels adjacent to his. The reunited family includes taciturn and unsociable brother Thomas and his strict and intimidating wife Rama, religious and ascetic brother Burton and his congenial but frustrated wife Harriet, and irresponsible and dissolute brother Benjamin and his young and forgiving wife Jennie. Now Joseph needs a wife of his own.
This is Steinbeck’s first California novel, and he takes special care to establish the setting. He provides rich descriptions of the landscape, illuminating accounts of life on the ranch, and sympathetic portrayals of the longtime Mexican American population. The author is less successful, however, in presenting characters. All except the protagonist are too easily summed up. Joseph, on the other hand, has plenty of complexity. Readers are likely to find themselves puzzling over his motives and world-view, especially as the book draws to a close. Which presumably is what Steinbeck intends. Unfortunately, Joseph often speaks cryptically in stilted phrases that sound like translations from the original Navajo. He even thinks this way, with the thoughts appearing as direct quotations. He comes to sound a bit ridiculous, and his credibility suffers as a result. The novel does not succeed on all counts, but readers may appreciate its ambitious attempt to link everyday life to larger themes of family and environment.