Today I am reviewing two short books. The first is John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, an episodic novella focused on a young boy living on a California ranch. The second, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, is a collection of short fiction by the great Ernest Hemingway. I am amazed how two small books can contain such enormous life-affirming themes.
5. The Red Pony by John Steinbeck
I was determined to read more from John Steinbeck after loving his incredible classic Of Mice and Men. If there are two things that Steinbeck does incredibly well, it’s his great depiction of American landscape and an intense understanding of human emotions. Divided into four interlocked stories, The Red Pony is a work that can be enjoyed for each individual work while greatly appreciated as the sum of its parts. I’m amazed at how a writer can convey so much meaning in such a short work of under 100 pages!
Like Of Mice and Men, we are reminded of the hardships that people faced during this period of American history. This is a setting that precedes technological development. Through this setting on a small ranch with a limited number of characters, the relationships stand out stronger. The stories are connected by four characters of ten-year-old Jody, his parents, and Billy the ranch hand. Keeping the focus on this one small family allows Steinbeck to explore larger concepts of trust, promise, and becoming an adult. At the end, you are left questioning who the real adult is, the father who should know better or the young boy who sees the beauty in everything.
The title story which opens this book focuses on the boy Jody earning his first real possession of a red pony. Jody’s father expects the boy to demonstrate he can take care of the young horse. I won’t spoil the plot any further, but please remember that this is Steinbeck. Great stories don’t always equal happy endings. I found the moral to be that when someone makes a promise to a child, those words serve as a permanent bond. Prepare to shed a tear or two. A later story serves as a chance for the ranch hand Billy to redeem himself in the eyes of Jody. The man’s willingness to do whatever it takes results in more tragic consequences. Steinbeck is a master of conveying so much human depth with just a look or a short quote.
The other two chapters deal with the relationship between the young and the old along with the concept of expanding your horizons. Jody is fascinated with what lies beyond the mountains. His father, however, is quick to subdue talk of such things. When an old man arrives, he states that he has come to spend his last days on the land where he grew up. Throughout the story, his father shows little patience with the man equating him with an old mare that just needs to be put down. The story ends with the old man stealing the elderly horse and going off into the mountains to die. I thought this was a beautifully told story about how life looks through the eyes of a child: so much wonder and an ability to see beauty in everyone. As we become adults, we tend to limit our scope as well as turn our backs on our seniors. We should never lose those gifts of wonder and patience that children possess. When Jody’s grandfather arrives in the final story, the boy’s father shows frustration at having to hear the old man tell the same tales over and over. In the end, it’s Jody that shows his grandfather true compassion by being the one willing to hear those old stories again and again. Perhaps, this is why as we get older we lose our hearing. People stop listening.
This book also contained a bonus short story titled “Junius Maltby” about a young boy raised by his imaginative and unconventional father. Although written in a very humorous tone, the moral contains an important message regarding letting others influence who you are. The son Robbie is very content in who he is and doesn’t even realize he is poor and under the scrutiny of others. It isn’t until he is told that he and his father are different that everything changes for them.
The stories in this book prove that great depth can be achieved with few words. It also serves as an eternal reminder of the beauty of dreams.
6. The Snows of Kilimanjaro (And Other Stories) by Ernest Hemingway
I’ve been wanting to read more Hemingway for a while. Sadly, I’ve only read The Old Man and the Sea and The Sun Also Rises ages ago. This book collects ten pieces of Hemingway’s greatest short fiction. Each of them serves as a stand-alone story, but there are connections as one particular character appears in several of them.
The first and title story—“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”—follows the last hours of a man who is dying of gangrene from an infected wound he sustained on an expedition with his wife. This is a beautifully written story, and in less than 30 pages, Hemingway is able to make us feel like we truly understand the dynamics of this relationship. The story also makes full use of the setting and contains one of the most beautiful endings to a short story I’ve ever read.
The last story of the collection was my other favorite of the book and actually works with the first one to create nice bookends. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is also set in Africa and features a married couple whose adventure goes awry. The husband is emasculated in front of his wife due to an act of cowardice while on an African expedition. As with “Snows,” Hemingway deals with themes such as loss of manhood and redemption. Francis Macomber is finally able to redeem himself for his shameful behavior in the end.
The remaining stories in this collection varied for me. My favorite from the rest was “The Killers” about two hit men who venture into a small town diner looking for a boxer who apparently owes someone money. The lengths of the stories are different, some being longer like this one while others are fragment pieces. This collection features the usual elements of Hemingway fiction: punch prose, smart dialogue, and great description of place. I’d recommend it for anyone wanting to get a taste for Hemingway’s writing before attempting some of his longer works.
“There was so much to write. He had seen the world change; not just the events; although he had seen many of them and had watched the people, but he had seen the subtler change and he could remember how the people were at different times. He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it; but now he never would.”― “