Friday, February 13, 2015

Adventure classics -- Life, death & the cost of a promise

The Red Pony

by John Steinbeck
Looking back two decades after The Red Pony, John Steinbeck said, “(It) was written a long time ago, when there was desolation in my family. The first death had occurred. And the family, which every child believes to be immortal, was shattered. . ."

Shattered, but put back together. Put back together, but never the same. (“You will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to,” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross would write later about the experience of grief.)

So Steinbeck drew on his own experiences of visiting his grandparents’ farm, of seeing the day to day work of living and dying on the farm, to transmute the experience of death, and the experience of human frailty and fallibility, on young Jody Tiflin, protagonist of the stories that make up The Red Pony cycle.

In the first of the four stories published together in book form, “The Gift,” Jody receives a red pony colt his father bought at auction from a bankrupt circus. Although Jody promises to take care of the pony, he depends on the aid and advice of his father’s horse-wise hired hand, Billy Buck. But after Billy Buck fails to bring the young colt in from a winter rain while Jody is at school, the colt becomes ill and dies.

Although Jody’s emotionally-distant father, Carl, seems to be little affected by the pony’s death, in a later story of the cycle, “The Promise,” he tells Jody that he may have the colt of the family’s plow mare if he takes care of the colt, and of the mare during her pregnancy.

But of even more importance to Jody than his father’ promise of a colt is the promise he tries to extract from Billy Buck. Having failed in his responsibility to Jody when the red pony died, Billy at first tries to evade telling Jody that everything will be well with the second horse. At last, as the mare goes into labor, he soothes Jody’s worries by assuring him that he’ll get a good colt.

And then things go terribly wrong. Realizing that the colt’s position inside the mother won’t allow it to be born, Billy kills the mare and cuts the colt from her body.

“‘There’s your colt. I promised. And there it is. I had to do it -- had to.’” And as Jody leaves the stable to get water to clean and care for the new life, “he tried to be glad because of the colt, but the bloody face, and the haunted, tired eyes of Billy Buck hung in the air ahead of him.”

And whose was the mysterious death that started Steinbeck’s meditation? My choice would be his maternal grandfather. Although dying in 1904, when Steinbeck was only two-years-old, “it is remarkable how much I remember about him,” Steinbeck later wrote, perhaps referring more to family legend than to the living man whose name and personality he would embody in fiction.

(Next Friday, the lessons taught by two old men in The Red Pony.)

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