My Oldest Book
In a previous posting, I mentioned the need to cull some items from our house's overflowing bookcases. While performing the chore (more than 60 titles were ultimately delivered to the good folks at Stone Ridge Academy for their next spring's sale), I ran across the book I've owned the longest -- the "adult" book, that is. It's John Steinbeck's novella "The Red Pony," in a 25-cent Bantam paperback that was in its fifth printing.
I used this mass-market edition of "The Red Pony" as a freshman in high school, and though about a boy and a horse, it served as an entree into adult reading. That's largely because the English teacher who assigned it, the crafty Francis X. Cleary, S.J., made clear that we shouldn't just read it for the story, dramatic as that was, but for the theme.
Young Jody's experience of seeing his favorite mare die in colt-birth marked a rite of passage for him, just as reading deeper than the book's surface did for us students. Cleary chose well: "The Red Pony" not only has a tragic dimension (the mare must die so that her offspring may be born); it also poses a challenge to readers by virtue of its last section, "The Leader of the People," in which Jody's grandfather reminisces about the early days of Western settlement as he lived through them. In 1958, it wasn't easy for me to tie this material in with the boy-loves-horse drama that had gone before, and frankly it's not a lot easier today. I'm about ready to conclude that Steinbeck made an artistic error in not wrapping his tale up with the death of the mare, perhaps with a few followup paragraphs about the impact on young Jody.
But for pedagogical purposes, I'm inclined to think the anti-climax worked just fine. At 14, we were forced to think about a tale's artistic shape, to stretch our inchoate minds in trying to make sense of a sharp departure toward the end, perhaps even (if I'm right about Steinbeck's miscalculation) to find a unity that isn't actually there -- in other words, to do the impossible. Not bad things to expect of impressionable and energetic high-school freshmen, if you ask me.
Whether the flaw is in the story or in my understanding of it, I'll be hanging on to "The Red Pony" for good.
-- Dennis Drabelle
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