I went into John Steinbeck’s novel a little skeptical. His debut, Cup of Gold, was, shall we say, less than impressive. He found himself, though, found his subject matter, found his voice, found his themes, and began laying the groundwork for The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and so many others. To a God Unknown is an important novel for Steinbeck fans.
There was so much here that brought to mind other, better known works from America’s best author. Joseph Wayne is restless in Vermont and finally gets his father’s blessing to move west, to California, before the good land is taken. His father dies soon after Joseph gets to his land in California, but Joseph believes his father’s spirit has taken up residence in a mighty oak tree beside his house. Soon after, his brothers come to live with him and life is good. Joseph, though, is basically living the life of a druidic priest, making offerings to the tree. His uptight Christian brother finally has enough and acts against him, leading to calamity.
That little review leaves out an amazing amount of story for such a short novel, but I don’t want to give too many spoilers. There are so many familiar elements here as Steinbeck draws allusions to the Bible, to Greek myth, and most notably to Arthurian legend, but transforming them to fit into what would come to be known as “Steinbeck Country.”
I’m going with four stars instead of five mostly because the dialogue is still pretty stiff. I found it to be a lot better than some later works, like Tortilla Flat, but it doesn’t have the flow of his later, greater novels.
I highly recommend the novel to anyone who enjoys the classics, and especially for anyone who considers himself a real fan of John Steinbeck.