In California, Steinbeck is required reading throughout high school so most people my age have already read his greatest works, but somehow I was never assigned East of Eden in my high school years. I have to say that I'm grateful I wasn't assigned it then because I don't think I would have appreciated the beauty of this book. The first Steinbeck book I ever read was Of Mice and Men in the 9th grade and it almost turned me off of reading Steinbeck altogether. Had it not been for me picking up The Grapes of Wrath on a whim a few years back I probably would have written him off completely. But I fell in love with John Steinbeck when I read The Grapes of Wrath and last week when I finished East of Eden, I fell in love with him all over again.
As with many of Steinbeck's books, East of Eden takes place in California's Central Valley, with the second half of the book taking place almost entirely in Salinas. The book follows three generations of two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The Hamiltons are Steinbeck's own ancestors and he even makes a couple of appearances in the book which I thought was interesting. However, for the most part the book focuses on Adam Trask, who begins his life in Connecticut, joins the military when the U.S. was exterminating Native Americans and eventually moves West to start a family with his beautiful wife who has a hidden sinister side.
Throughout the book, Steinbeck explores the human ability to choose to be good or evil. The story of Cain and Abel is a recurring theme throughout the book and really got me to think about the nature versus nurture argument. There is a cast of colorful characters throughout the book and, as always, whether he's describing something beautiful or something awful, Steinbeck creates a vivid picture for the reader. Steinbeck is said to have thought of East of Eden as his greatest work, and I have to say that I agree. His natural talent for storytelling really comes across in this book. I know it's a long one (695 pages!) but it's well worth the time.