Back in my early 20s I used to read through authors. I not only read through nearly everything John Steinbeck wrote, but I also scanned dusty shelves of many a thrift store to complete my personal Steinbeck collection. A particular thrill for me was that, during this Steinbeck extravaganza, I was fortunate enough to drive cross-country from Tennessee to California with my parents. We visited Monterey and its Cannery Row and even saw lots of downtrodden men with a bottles in brown bags, which truly gave an authentic Steinbeck feel to the whole day.
Naturally a Steinbeck novel is essential reading for my American Lit class next year, and I'd narrowed the choices down to Of Mice and Men, The Pearl, and The Red Pony. As of now, The Red Pony is in the lead. I haven't yet re-read Of Mice and Men, but The Red Pony is just such a perfect novel. First published in 1937, this short novel is composed of four separate vignettes in the life of the boy Jody. Through the story Jody faces the hard realities of death, heartbreak, and cruelty but also experiences wild joy, a longing for adventure, and a certainty of his own identity.
Steinbeck is a master of character description, using his trademark sparse language to drill home those universal human truths. There is a wonderful scene in the second chapter, "The Great Mountains," in which Jody, angry at the death of his horse, kills a bird out of sheer meanness. This line follows ends that scene: "He didn't care about the bird, or its life, but he knew what older people would say if they had seen him kill it; he was ashamed because of their potential opinion." There are all kinds of treasures in the same vein throughout the book that will make for great class discussion.