Choose Your Own Advent, Day 20: Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men, John SteinbeckChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Of Mice and Men
Author: John Steinbeck
Year: 1937

A good many works of art have hit me like a brick, but Of Mice and Men might have been the first one to really, truly get an emotional response out of me.

Like many of the books that dug deeply into me, I didn’t know at first what to expect from it. It was a summer reading assignment at some point in middle school. It was a short book, so I read it first. That was, I say in all truth, a great lesson for me to learn as an early reader; short doesn’t necessarily mean easy.

Not that it was difficult to read, per se. Rather, it was difficult to process. With that ending–my experience of that ending–still so vivid to me. I’ve read it many times since. The ending still gets me. But I remember the first time I experienced that ending. It happened to also be the first time I was left speechless by a book. The first time I had no words. The first time I found my emotions truly stirred by the work of another.

Of Mice and Men left a mark on me. It’s hard for me to enjoy books now that don’t affect me in some deeper way. Once I learned–or realized; it could be either–that books could do that…well…why bother with the ones that don’t? If reading a book can be a transformative experience, why spend time on the ones that aren’t?

I like being challenged, and not just intellectually. In fact, at the time I read Of Mice and Men…at the time it spoiled me as a reader…I wasn’t ready to be challenged intellectually. I needed exactly what it was: a simple story, told simply, that just happened to sting like a bastard.

Emotions I understood. I just didn’t realize that words on a page…words about people who never existed, made up by a man I didn’t know…could trigger them so easily. I felt helpless. I felt as though John Steinbeck had reached into me and done something without me knowing what it was. It was a unique feeling…one I remember well. And I know I give a lot of the credit for that to the book’s unforgettable ending, but the ending wouldn’t have had nearly the impact it did if not for the strength of the story that led to it.

Of Mice and Men is a bit of an oddity. I’ve read quite a bit of Steinbeck since, and at least one of his books prior, but it’s Of Mice and Men that I can most easily return to in my mind. I can quietly revisit the characters, the setting, the clothes…I can hear the voices…I can feel the sticky breeze…I can envision the rabbits right along with Lennie…

And yet, it uses the simplest–and most compact–language that I’ve ever personally experienced from Steinbeck. It’s his simplest tale. When you’re reading it it seems like something that could have rolled off the tongue of a storyteller. It doesn’t feel as complex or intricately crafted as Steinbeck’s other work…as deliberate…as aware of its own importance.

It is, however, his most effective.

It’s as though Of Mice and Men is a more naturally affecting work. One that resonates so well in simplicity that it doesn’t need to span hundreds of pages. One that is so immediately, so urgently, so poignantly recognizable that we can lose every one of Lennie and George’s adventures except for their last one and still understand, completely and thoroughly, everything that they’ve been through. Everything that led them to where they are. Everything that prevents them from going back. Everything that’s driven them to what absolutely, without question, has to be their end.

I’ve never known an entire history to be so effectively woven with so few words.

A few years ago I met someone who had read A Prayer for Owen Meany. That’s another novel that I love, so I was happy to talk about it with her.

She struggled a bit for words. I think she was trying to express something that she felt, but had never said out loud before. What she told me was that the characters she met in that book didn’t feel like characters; she felt as though she had come to know real people.

I can’t speak for her, but something like that isn’t really important to me as I read. My favorite author is Thomas Pynchon, and I think it’s fair to say that “realistic characters” aren’t high on his list of priorities when he sits down to write a novel. But I could understand and appreciate what she was saying; Of Mice and Men made me feel the same way.

In fact, I’ll take it further and say that these are real people. The fact that Steinbeck invented them doesn’t mean anything.

They are real people. Heck, they’re more real than Steinbeck himself is in Travels with Charley. Being real and being fictional aren’t mutually exclusive when it comes to literature.

And that’s why the tragedy in Of Mice and Men–when it hits, as it must–stings as deeply as it does.

It’s because we know these people. In just a few dozen pages, we know these people. Over just a handful of events, some evocative description, a bit of telling dialogue and accidental slips of the tongue, we know these people. Through lost tempers and honest hopes and dreams large and small clasped tightly to the characters’ chests, we know these people. From the distance between what these characters want and their chances of ever getting it, we know these people.

I don’t know what Of Mice and Men is about, really. At least, if I had to boil it down to a theme, I wouldn’t be sure what to pick. Loyalty. Humanity. Trust.

I don’t know.

I’m not sure George, at the end of the novel, knows either.

But he knows how he feels. And he didn’t expect to feel that way any more than I did.