‘To A God Unknown’ is a beautiful little novel by John Steinbeck, his third, printed and published in 1933. A choice quote (before I return the book to the library):
“In a way it gratified him that his health was bad, for it proved God thought enough of him to make him suffer. Burton had the powerful resistance of the chronically ill” (pg 22).
This sentences sums up a lot about how life and illness are often intertwined, but of course it also hints at the sickness of humanity itself as both a part and apart from nature and the natural world.
The book mainly deals with the theme of nature and of mankind’s place alongside it. In particular it deals with the themes of a unrelenting and unforgiving natural world, in which nothing can be taken at face value.
There is some beautifully haunting imagery of the oak tree that Joseph, the main character, idolizes. The tree itself is one of the main, albeit unspeaking, character of thee book, looming large over the novel as a representative of Joseph’s deceased father, and acting as a key focal point for the ‘pagan’ practices that Joseph ritualises and includes in his understanding of the world he is in. The novel is also a fascinating insight into the frontier land of homesteading at the turn of the 20th century in the American West.
A great oak tree (courtesy of the White Dragon, click to read a short essay on oak trees).
The great oak that guards Joseph’s landscape and all that it contains has re-awoken in myself my love and fascination for trees and plants, for nature and the natural landscape. At this time of year, in late Spring/early Summer, the trees and plants are in full bloom and nature once again seems dynamic after a long winter, and so it seemed a perfect time to read this book. (I have to confess here to a startling ignorance in my lack of basic tree knowledge, but it is something I hope to rectify).
However getting back to the book…The phrasing and sentences are sometimes clunky and the characterizations of the main actors are not always fully fleshed out. We, the reader, often lust for, and urge for, a greater insight into the meanings and actions of the family characters, but Joseph himself remains an indomitable man, representative of the great unknown and a key figure of the unflinching nature of the natural world.
This is an early Steinbeck work however, and he wrote in varying styles and voices throughout his writing career. As such ‘To A God Unknown’ remains a vital stepping stone from his early work to his later classic novels, such as ‘Of Mice and Men’ and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. I’d highly recommend giving it a read.