Of Mice and Men book review
“Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place. . . They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to.”
This is the story that George tells his friend Lennie over and over again. The life of an itinerant ranch hand, living hand to mouth, hustling work where he can find it. But he and Lennie are different: they have each other. And together they will save their money and buy a few acres of land with a shack on it, and a couple of outbuildings, and raise chickens, and pigs, and grow their own food.
“An’ live off the fatta the lan’!” Lennie shouts. Because he knows the ending to the story – George has told it many times.
This is their dream. To live on their own small property, with no one to tell them to shove off, no one to boss them around. Lennie, who is big, enormously strong, with the intellect of a child, believes George implicitly. A few more jobs and they’ll have their stake; they’ll buy a place and quite roaming from ranch to ranch. And Lennie will tend the rabbits.
George is smart. He knows how to plan ahead, how to get along with the jerkline skinner, “the prince of the ranch”. He may be small in stature but he knows how to think, how to find work and how to get them out of there when trouble’s brewing. George knows that Lennie, who is simple and impulsive, is a liability, but he knows Lennie will do as he’s told. If he gets into trouble, as he’s done before, he will come back to a place by the river, and hide in the brush till George comes to get him. That much Lennie will remember.
What George can’t control is the pretty, wayward young wife of the boss’ son, Curly. The only woman on the ranch, she’s lonely – Curly, with his hair-trigger temper and his nasty, suspicious nature, isn’t much company. So she hangs around the bunkhouse, flirting with the men, making a nuisance of herself. And Lennie likes to touch nice things.
He did it before, in Weed. Touched a girl’s dress and wouldn’t let go – held on even harder when she screamed. The girl cried rape and the two men only just escaped being lynched. Now there’s another ranch and another girl. And nothing good can come of it.
John Steinbeck, who was born and grew up in Salinas, California, drew on his own experiences to tell this tale of migrant farm workers. He dropped out of college without taking a degree and spent several years working on farms and ranches in the Central Valley. In 1936 he wrote a series of newspaper articles about the shocking conditions experienced by workers in California’s migrant labour camps – whole families lacking proper shelter, food, or running water; he followed it up the next year with Of Mice and Men, a tragic novella based on those lives.
What gripped me the first time I read it, and continues to hold me each time I go back to it, is the straightforward, no-nonsense story-telling. We know the author has a message, but unlike some of his contemporaries, or even his own work of later years, he doesn’t hit you over the head with it. He lets his characters go about their business, trying to keep their heads above water, with all the odds stacked against them. It’s a dark, hopeful, and hopeless description of what it means to be human.
By the time Steinbeck was awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature he had written twelve novels, four novellas, a half dozen nonfiction books and a handful of short stories. Critics complained that his best work, Tortilla Flat, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath, was long behind him. And maybe it was. But turning to those pages again, at a time when migrant workers continue to struggle, when their children are rounded up and put in cages, away from their parents, the stories don’t seem dated at all. They seem sadly, even terribly, prophetic.