I’d forgotten how good John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men really is. Just re-read it after many years and what a gem of a little story! In a mere 120 pages, Steinbeck dives deep into themes such as loneliness, dreams and loyalty while portraying the nomadic lives of ranch hands in America during the Great Depression. To top it off are the most exquisite descriptions of landscapes and farm life.
Friends Lennie and George travel around California in search of jobs. They’re an odd couple, Lennie brain damaged but physically strong, George uneducated but smart. Lennie frequently gets them into trouble because of his penchant for cuddling soft things – be it women’s hair or animals – just a bit to hard. But at least they have each other, which is more than can be said of pretty much everybody else in this story. What keeps them going is their dream of buying their own little farm, a dream kept alive by Lennie’s constant nagging for George to fantasise about it.
Lennie said, ‘Tell about that place, George.’
‘I jus’ tol’ you, jus’ last night.’
‘Go on –tell again, George.’
‘Well, it’s ten acres,’ said George. ‘Got a little win’mill. Got a shack on it, an’ a chicken run. Got a kitchen, orchard, cherries, apples, peaches, ‘cots, nuts, got a few berries. They’s a place for alfafa and plenty water to flood it. They’s a pig pen –‘
‘An’ rabbits, George.’
They land jobs at a farm run by an unpleasant farmer and his aggressive son, Curley. Curley’s wife, a lonely, flirtatious woman with dreams of her own, drifts around the farm in search of attention and company.
Steinbeck’s characters are masterfully described. There’s Candy, a disabled, ageing ranch hand with an equally old dog; Crooks, the black stable boy, living in seclusion because of his skin colour; Slim, the ‘prince of the ranch’ whose ‘word was taken on any subject’ plus a whole hoard of restless, lonely workers, a lethal combination with the ‘jail bait’ that is Curley’s wife.
Steinbeck shows us what solitude can look like. Although these farm workers live on top of each other, desperate loneliness screams out on every page. Lennie and George’s peculiar friendship stands out as the only somewhat functioning human relationship. The allure of dreams and their destructive potential is also central to Steinbeck’s message, and rarely have dreams been described this beautifully.
Of Mice and Men is not a children’s book, but it’s a perfect introduction to great literature. I read this with my 11-year-old son, who absolutely loved it, despite some very sad, quite tough passages. A friend of mine told me that this book got her son interested in reading. Could there be a better endorsement?
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, 120 pages.