‘In the town they tell the story of the great pearl – how it was found and how it was lost again. They tell of Kino, the fisherman, and of his wife, Juana, and of the baby, Coyotito. And because the story has been told so often, it has taken root in every man’s mind.’
The Pearlis Steinbeck’s heartbreaking short parable about wealth and the darkness and evil it can instill in even the most generous of men’s hearts.
Category 13 in the Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge is ‘Read a book with less than 100 pages.’ John Steinbeck’s classic, coming in at a mere 96 pages, falls cleanly within this remit. (Yes, I am now doing the categories completely out of order and have yet to review books to fit categories 7, 11 and 12. They are coming, I promise.)
I haven’t read any Steinbeck novels since school, and I am wondering why because The Pearl is so stunning, in both the writing and the story itself, that I now feel like I need to go and pick up more of his work.
This is the story of Kino, his wife Juana and their baby Coyotito who live a hand-to-mouth on the shores of the Gulf until Kino, a fisherman, finds a huge and exquisite pearl that he believes will elevate his family from the cycle of poverty which traps them. He longs for opportunity and education for their son, so that he will not be prey to being kept down by their fear and lack of knowledge. However, greed and envy, the determination of those above to keep them down and the fear of the unknown of those around them, conspire to rob Kino of his dreams.
The writing is beautiful from the very first page. It is not flowery, but powerful, with the descriptions of the simple life of the fisher folk bringing their world to stark life. Their fear and panic when misfortune befalls their child, their rage when they know they are being manipulated and robbed by lack any ability to prevent it, the unfairness of their situation burns brightly on the page through Steinbeck’s prose, and leaps from their into the soul of the reader. I felt their pain very keenly and deeply, and was left with lasting pain on their behalf long after the book was finished.
Despite this being a very short book, Steinbeck manages to explore in detail the themes of evil in the hearts of man. How one person’s good fortune inspires darkness in the hearts and minds of others, and how difficult it is for people to break out from under the yoke of poverty when to do so does not serve the people who benefit from exploiting them. If this book does not make you angry, I would be very surprised.
This book is a shining example of how to write. Not a word is wasted, and the picture is painted in the reader’s mind’s eye with clarity and intensity. It is both inspiring and daunting to read as a writer, demonstrating what lofty heights are possible and making one despair of ever getting anywhere close to them.
The Pearl is out now in all formats and you can get a copy here.
About the Author
John Ernst Steinbeck Jr. (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American author and the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature winner “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” He has been called “a giant of American letters.”
During his writing career, he authored 33 books, with one book coauthored alongside Edward Ricketts, including 16 novels, six non-fiction books, and two collections of short stories. He is widely known for the comic novels Tortilla Flat (1935) and Cannery Row (1945), the multi-generation epic East of Eden (1952), and the novellas The Red Pony (1933) and Of Mice and Men (1937). The Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is considered Steinbeck’s masterpiece and part of the American literary canon. In the first 75 years after it was published, it sold 14 million copies.
Most of Steinbeck’s work is set in central California, particularly in the Salinas Valley and the California Coast Ranges region. His works frequently explored the themes of fate and injustice, especially as applied to downtrodden or everyman protagonists.