Sep 28, 2009

The Red Pony

by John Steinbeck

I thought of this book because I saw it mentioned on The Zen Leaf among a list of banned books. I was really taken aback- what could be objectionable about The Red Pony? So I pulled my own copy (with lovely illustrations by Wesley Dennis) off the shelf to thumb through and refresh my memory.

Well, now I remember. It is kind of brutal. And the kid swears once or twice. Sorry, there will be some spoilers here, so don't read ahead if you want to avoid them.

The Red Pony is about a young boy living on a small ranch in California. It is really four short stories, which show Jody growing up, learning some bitter lessons about life and death. In the first story, Jody's father gives him a red pony, and it is his responsibility to care for it and train it. Jody delights in the pony's lively spirit and is proud to show him off to his friends. But one day the pony mistakenly gets left out in a rainstorm and becomes ill. The ranch hand, Billy Buck, tries to save the pony but it dies. The descriptions of the pony's sufferings are pretty stark. Jody is angry about the pony's death, and feels betrayed by Billy. The next story opens up with Jody venting his frustration on smaller creatures around him- teasing the dog, killing small birds, etc. Then his attention shifts when an old man shows up from the mountains. He says he was born on the ranch long ago, and now that his life is at an end, he wants to stay there until he dies. But Jody's father doesn't want him hanging around the ranch. In the third story, Jody is allowed to take his father's mare to be bred by a neighbor's stallion, and the new colt will be his. He and Billy watch carefully over the mare's pregnancy, but when it comes time for her to deliver the foal, something goes wrong and Billy must make an instant decision- to save the mare, or fulfill his promise to Jody and give him a live colt. In the last story, Jody's grandfather comes to visit, telling romanticized tales of the times he led a wagon train across the plains, to the delight of Jody, and the great annoyance of his father. Strife ensues when Jody's father openly admits he's sick of hearing his father-in-law's tales.

All the stories have a common theme of death. Jody's first colt dies, and so do his dreams (his fantasies of owning a fierce, prancing stallion were never realistic). His faith in Billy's infallible ability with horses dies. He sees the old man come to the ranch seeking a peaceful place to meet death, and being turned away. He sees his grandfather face the fact that his time of glory is passed, only interesting to small boys. And then he has to confront the reality that he can only have his longed-for colt if the mare dies. Not a pretty picture, all around. Jody isn't a nice, innocent little boy, either. But there's something in these stories that makes them vivid and real, throbbing with life, with the pain of growing up and the hardness of living on a small, poor ranch. I hate to see animals suffer as much as anyone, and yet I love this book. It is just so heartachingly real.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 120 pages, 1933


Lezlie said...

I am scared to death to read this. It makes me cry just looking at the cover.


bermudaonion said...

Wow, it really does make you wonder if a book like that has been banned.

Jeane said...

Lezlie- Maybe I said too much about it, but sometimes I think it's better to know going into a story that's such a heart-tugger.

Bermudaonion- I know. There's some death, some animals treated unkindly, some frank descriptions of suffering, and the little kid says "damn" once or twice. I can't think of anything offensive enough to have got it banned!

Lezlie said...

Jeane ~ No! I'm glad you gave as much description as you did. Normally I wouldn't want to read spoilers, but in a case like this (animals) I want to know exactly what I'll be getting into if I decide to read it. Now I can brace myself properly when the time comes.


Amanda said...

I still think it's so weird that this was banned for being a trashy sex novel. WTF? I don't get it.

Honestly, I'd be very uncomfortable with my kids reading this book, but I can see, when it was written, why it'd be a kids book. Kids were exposed to a lot more then, especially if they lived out on the country. I can imagine my grandparents reading this as kids and loving it. But personally, I was a bit too uncomfortable with the graphicness to give to my kids.

Sherrie said...

Sounds like an interesting book. I'll have to check into this one and find out why it's been banned. I didn't see anywhere to put my post for the DogEar Reading Challenge so I'm putting it here. Hope that's ok. My review of Faefever - Karen Marie Moning (an adult fantasy book) is posted at my place, A View of my Life. Have a great day!


Jeane said...

Amanda- I don't think I would mind my child reading it, but I would definitely want her to be old enough to handle the issues, or have a discussion with her afterward.

Sherrie- The posts for Sept reviews is here but you're right, I need to make it easier to find. I'll be putting up one for Oct soon. Thanks for being part of the DogEar Reading challenge!

Trish said...

Wow--how have I not heard of this one before? I guess because it gets passed up for Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath, huh? You mentioned stories--is this a collection or short stories? This alone makes me want to pick it up: " It is just so heartachingly real." Great review, Jeane.

Jeane said...

Trish- It's more of a novella, formed of four short stories; in the same setting and following similar themes. But each could be read as a stand-alone.

Anonymous said...

This is a great book. I read it in 8th grade(12years ago) for a book report. I hated ready but i really enjoyed it. I would recommend it to anyone.