Thursday, February 01, 2018

"Flight" (1938)

Read story by John Steinbeck online.

John Steinbeck's story involves a lot of elements familiar to his work, including a setting in Monterey, California, and a poor Hispanic family, living and working on a farm, eking out an existence. The father is dead and there are three children. The oldest is Pepe, at 19, who seems friendly and open and is described as lazy. He loves the switchblade knife his mother gave him as a keepsake of his father. In the story, she sends him to town for supplies, but when he returns he is in trouble. A confrontation occurred and he has killed someone. Now he must flee into the mountains. But he is ill-prepared for the flight, as the story now veers into man vs. nature business for most of its bulk, good stuff if not much new. It quickly becomes apparent this is going to be a doomed enterprise. There's little social commentary beyond the basic premise of the family's impoverishment. The story supplies concrete details of the trail, the escape, and what happens, as Pepe begins to lose everything piece by piece: the knife, the horse, his hat, the rifle he brought with him, and finally water. He's not prepared for any of it and his end is a sad one, but Steinbeck doesn't spend much time on that. He was a natural storyteller, able to move his narratives with physical description, and this story is a fine example. It's rarely surprising but always vivid and engaging, the kind of thing Jack London was also good at, including making its social points in quietly effective ways. Pepe's troubles have little to do with his ethnicity, but it's also obvious his ethnicity never makes anything easier. Early in the story we learn how his father died, and we meet his younger sister and brother, who are 12 and 14, and it's hard to see rosy futures for any of them, but that is never dwelt on. We are simply privy to this one terrible episode in their lives, reminiscent of the scene in a song by Neil Young, "Powderfinger." It's sad and terrible but feels eternal, like a biblical parable. Your heart can't help but go out to the good nature and stupidity of this typical 19-year-old, who believes he is an adult but is not. So it goes. This is a good one.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

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