John Steinbeck’s short novel The Red Pony at first glance seems to be a simple story about ten year-old Jody Tiflin and his life on a California farm. Steinbeck beautifully describes so much of the details of this farm life from Jody’s chores to his mother’s meals and his father’s work in addition to the mountains and the animals that surround Jody’s world.
Some deeper ideas emerge as the four separate stories that make up the novel begin to come together. From the perspective of the child, Jody, adults break some promises made to him. From the perspective of some of the adults in the novel, they make promises to Jody they know they cannot guarantee. Steinbeck’s description of the wild look in the eyes of the farmhand, Billy Buck, as he takes drastic measures to not go back on his promise ranks as one of my favorite scenes, in spite of the horrific actions Billy takes.
The relationship that Jody has with his father is somewhat shaky although there is a certain amount of respect on both sides. As with many adults, they don’t like seeing the world become a different place for their kids. They rely solely on what they know and with what they are comfortable. Mr. Tiflin gets a taste of his own medicine when his father-in-law comes to pay a visit and talks incessantly about his life moving west to California. Jody’s mother makes an interesting observation when she describes her father’s life as being finished before he dies. A “nameless sorrow” describes the Grandfather’s world as seeming to crumble when he finally made it all the way west to the ocean – there was nowhere else to go.
I’m becoming more and more appreciative of the realities Steinbeck is able to paint into his stories. His realities are not always happy but I’ve found them profoundly stirring.