I grew up in isolation.
Not torturous isolation, no, nothing like that. It was an isolation that was common of the time, an isolation constructed of distance and space and interminable roads to nowhere. We lived on a tiny hobby farm perched precariously on a bitumen snake of a highway, the house looking down over rolling hills that bore no signs of human life, save for the glinting wire fences that divided them.
The closest town was only eight kilometres along the highway, but it was an afterthought of a town that had slowly lost its reason for being. Nevertheless, we rarely left its confines as we believed it had everything we could possibly need.
We spent long hot summer days baking ourselves at the local pool or river layers of skin peeling off as one sunburn began before the last had faded. We ran barefoot through the dried grass of our scorched paddocks, the thought of snakes nothing but a dull warning in the back of our minds. We relied on the old wives tale that if you made enough noise the snakes would avoid the vibrations. We rarely saw them so it must have been true.
We never thought we were missing out on anything, because we weren’t. Our happiness was bound up in sunshine and tanned skin and friendship bracelets and laughter. We rejoiced over crisp cold mornings and frost covered grass, the taste of the first orange of the season and falling in love. We had no Internet or iPhone 5s, no Instagram and hash tags and likes and viral tweets. Our friendships and first loves were cemented by small acts of kindness and face to face conversations, there was no ‘Facebook official’ and ‘stalking his page’ and ‘I’ll friend you on Facebook’.
And we were happy. Well, most of the time.
Thomas Steinbeck’s Cabbages and Kings plunges the reader back into this simpler time. The story takes place near King City, in the Salinas Valley, California. The landscape and the atmosphere created by Steinbeck in this novella is reminiscent of his father’s most famous works, but Thomas Steinbeck certainly has an enchanting style that is wholly his own.
In the opening moments of the story we are introduced to Titus Gatelock, an enigma of a man whose past is shrouded in rumour and intrigue. His life is plagued by gossip and hearsay, yet Titus himself does nothing to refute the wild claims made about him by the folk of King City. Rather, he almost encourages them with his silence. As he says himself,
There’s real history and real truth out there everywhere, but when it bumps heads with a whopping good yarn that everybody enjoys, then the truth is sure to cross the line in last place every time.
Despite Titus’s reticence and detachment from society, he is befriended by two young boys, one of whom is our narrator. Isolation, location and circumstance throw them together; Titus is a tenant on the ranch inherited by the narrators father. The second young boy is the child of a Mexican couple who are hired by Titus to help on the land. The child is nicknamed Lobosito; a moniker given to him due to his pale-grey, wolf-like eyes, a feature considered very strange indeed for a Mexican boy. It is his strange and unsettling eyes that lead to Lobosito’s segregation from society, and simultaneously endear him to Titus who suffers from his own form of biased discrimination.
Steinbeck demonstrates through this unlikely friendship the ability that children have to see beyond supposition and reputation to the person beneath; an ability rarely, if ever, shared by adults. As they grow older the two boys never falter in their respect and admiration of Titus, despite the whispered tales that continue to shadow his past. Lobosito goes so far as to fight a fellow student who insults Titus in his presence. This act is far from being admired or appreciated by Titus, who is furious when he is told of it.
…committing violence, and shedding blood, is not a valid argument, quite to the contrary. If a person must resort to violence to make their point, it’s a sign that they haven’t thought out their argument very well, and that kind of bloody thinking is what invariably gives birth to filial heartache, feuds, and wars.
The harsh conditions of the Salinas Valley, the passing of both young men’s fathers and the devastation of the San Francisco earthquake contrive to place this inseparable duo into dire financial straits. But it is just as they hit rock bottom that their enduring friendship with Titus serves to change their lives forever.
I had decided that I wouldn’t compare Thomas Steinbeck’s writing style with his father’s, but it is almost impossible not to. Both share a faculty for melodic description that is impossible to resist. Like his father before him, Thomas Steinbeck is able to breathe a captivating beauty into the most prosaic of setting, character and circumstance. Steinbeck’s love of literature and language shines throughout, with references to Don Quixote and Moby Dick interspersed with statements by Titus who declares:
the difference between a socially responsible and prosperous individual and a wage-bound labour slave was a good education.
In fact the title of this novella is taken from Lewis Carroll’s poem The Walrus and the Carpenter, which the narrator quotes at the end of the story. You can imagine my delight at this eloquent reference to one of my favourite authors, and indeed one of the poems that my mother used to say to me as a child.
Mystery and suggestion are woven delicately throughout this story, as you approach the end you find yourself recalling previous seemingly innocuous moments in a different light. The simplicity of the lives of these three men is what makes this such a captivating read, they face the everyday troubles and struggles that are so easy to relate to. Struggles that in this modern day are lived out in a separate world to the one we tend to inhabit.
This November is A Month of Steinbeck over here at The Paperbook Blog, so why don’t you kick it off with Cabbages and Kings.
Titus Gatelock’s life, past and present, was an absolute mystery, and not just of the quaint and curious variety, but an enigma that became so tantalizing over the years, that it begged every kind of speculation by every category of citizen.
Discover the mystery.
Review copy of Cabbages and Kings provided by Post Hill Press.