When the first thing you read after opening the front cover of a book is that the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, it sets up a very big expectation in the mind of the reader. So imagine how pleased I was to discover how worthy this book and its writer were.
Of Mice and Men is the kind of book that high schools make students read in English classes, usually before they are emotionally ready to understand the importance of it. First published in 1937, it beautifully portrays the hard lives of two itinerant workers, George and Lennie, as they struggle to find their place in the world. Lennie is a “simple-minded giant” – today he would be described as intellectually disabled – and George is his protector, has been since the death of Lennie’s Aunt Clara. Why he feels this responsibility is unclear. They dream of a little patch of land they can call their own and just need the money to buy it. But there has been trouble in the past and as the two men prepare to take up new jobs on a California farm, George and Lennie agree on a place to meet up if there’s any more.
Almost as soon as they arrive, though, George knows instinctively it won’t end well. Slim, the most senior worker, is empathetic but Curley, the owner’s son, is a former boxer and determined to establish his authority by taking on and beating Lennie, whose physical size dwarfs his mental capacity. All he needs is the merest hint of provocation. So George tells Lennie to work hard, to keep his head down and to stay away from Curley’s attractive but bored wife who looks for entertainment by riling up the farm workers when her husband isn’t around. When he isn’t working, Lennie spends most of his time in the barn where Slim’s dog has recently given birth to a litter of puppies. (He’s been promised the brown and white one.) But Curley’s wife manages to track him down there and only one of them is going to get out of the barn alive.
Curley’s wife, Slim’s dog and Aunt Clara are the only females in the story but on a farm in the 1930s, it makes complete sense. The story is a very small slice of a very specific time and place, told with the contrast of Steinbeck’s perfect prose and dead-on ear for the working class dialect of the farm workers. There’s a lot of dialogue and for most of the book it feels like the characters are talking about nothing much. But the simplicity is actually a sneaky subtleness because when the end rolls around, it all makes sense – an awful but flawless sense.
This plot couldn’t happen in a modern setting – the current support mechanisms for the intellectually disabled would prevent a person like Lennie being dragged around the country by a person like George, even under the guise of looking after him. And it couldn’t happen in a longer book – at 95 pages, the length is also perfect because readers probably wouldn’t stick around for much longer. The ending comes at precisely the right time.
This is the first Steinbeck book I’ve read and it’s not even his most famous. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, which I have a copy of just waiting to be read. And based on Of Mice and Men, it has certainly moved way up my very long list.
If you’re looking for a quick read with beautiful writing, a range of interesting characters, a deceptively simple plot and a powerful ending, this is the book for you.
*First published on Goodreads 21 December 2016