The Red Pony
by John Steinbeck
Sometimes it seems that there’s nothing like the presence of an animal character to get a story labeled as children’s literature. Throw a child character as well as an animal into a book and you’ll be all but guaranteed to find it shelved in the children’s section of your local bookstore or library. But surely it would be more appropriate to label such stories, “not for children only,” because the lessons taught by those we dismiss as innocents are needed, if anything, still more desperately by adults. To place an Enzo of The Art of Racing in the Rain, or a Scout of To Kill A Mockingbird into a story is to view life through a lens of unwavering truth.
And so John Steinbeck must have thought when “The Gift,” the first of his stories about young Jody Tiflin, appeared in the November 1933 issue of The North American Review. Notice, that’s not a children’s magazine.
“The Gift,” about the red circus pony colt Jody receives from his father, is sometimes now anthologized as a stand-alone story. However, over the course of the 1930’s, Steinbeck would return to the theme of young Jody’s passage from childhood into adolescence repeatedly with “The Great Mountains” and “The Promise.” “The Leader of the People,” a fourth story more loosely linked to the rest, was included with the first three when Penguin publishing brought them together as The Red Pony. (The illustration for this post is one of artist Wesley Dennis’s paintings for the 1945 book.)
The joint publication seems to imply, rather misleadingly, that the stories constitute a novel, or at least a novella (the combined stories run to less than 120 pages in the hardback Penguin edition illustrated by Dennis). Some critics even try to guess at an integrated chronology, additionally misled by the 1949 movie, whose screenplay was also written by Steinbeck, but relies mainly on only two of the stories.
Instead, consider them, as Steinbeck may have, as separate meditations on the themes of life, death and the loss of innocence, in the person of 10-year-old Jody Tiflin.
Taking Jody and hired cowboy Billy Buck to the barn of his Salinas Valley ranch, “Jody’s father moved over toward te one box stall. ‘Come here!’ he ordered. (Jody) looked into the box stall and then stepped back quickly A red pony colt was looking at him out of the stall¼ he asked very shyly, ‘Mine?’”
It’s the beginning of the idyllic friendship between the boy and the mishandled colt who learns to trust him, the colt he names Gabilan, for the nearby, beautiful Gabilan Mountains. As the weeks, then months go by, the colt grows. “He nickered when Jody came across the stubble-field, and in the pasture he came running when his master whistled for him. There was always a carrot for him every time.”
And seeing how fast the pony is growing up, Jody's father at last says, “I guess you can ride him by Thanksgiving. Think you can stick on?”
It's still three weeks until Thanksgiving, but winter comes faster. Winter and rain, cold rain on a young colt. “A little rain don’t hurt a horse,” the ranch’s hired hand, Billy Buck, tells Jody reassuringly. But will it?
(Next Friday, Adventure classics looks at Jody's first lesson of The Red Pony.)