June 17, 2008

Burning Bright **

** Burning Bright, John Steinbeck, 1950

Like many baby boomers, my first exposure to Steinbeck was being traumatized by The Red Pony and The Pearl in school. I don't know what these educators are thinking. High school is depressing enough without adding stories like that to it. In the 80s, I was properly introduced to Steinbeck by a cab driver in San Francisco who recommended I read Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. A much better introduction. I fell in love with Steinbeck and began collecting novels as I worked my way through used book stores across the country.

I have a stack of Steinbeck in the To Be Read shelf that are not mentioned in The Stack. When the fancy strikes me, I grab one. Some are more compelling than others. I'm partial to Tortilla Flat and The Winter of our Discontent. And Travels with Charley, but that's not a novel.

So, when I was headed as a volunteer to a fund raising event where I thought I might have some time on my hands, I grabbed a Burning Bright because it is short, under 100 pages. I didn't get to read much more than the introduction at that time, which I found to be as interesting as the book itself.

Steinbeck wrote Burning Bright as a stage play and then filled in description and action to turn it into a novella. It was intended to be able to be performed simply by lifting the dialog out of the book without any significant adaptation. A production was done in New Haven and Boston. It was his third attempt at such a form, the first two being Of Mice and Men and The Moon is Down. (More information at wikipedia.)

It's an unusual book. Divided into three acts, each act has the same four characters but the setting for each of the three acts recasts the four characters in different situations: the first act is set in a circus, Saul and Victor are trapeze artists and Friend Ed, a clown; in the second act, Saul and Friend Ed are neighboring farmers and Victor is Saul's farmhand. In the final act Saul is the captain of a ship, Mr. Victor, his mate, and Friend Ed a seaman about to put out on a different ship. In all acts, Mordeen is Saul's wife. If you don't know this going in, the transition to the second act is confusing.

Also, the dialog is a bit ornate and poetic for the humble characters who speak it and takes a little getting used to. However, it's an interesting story and I found the character arcs engaging.

Two stars for the general reader, three stars for students of the craft.

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