“Flight” by John Steinbeck

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Yes, I’ve been neglecting my short story reading project for many weeks. I don’t know why, either. It had become such a nice routine to draw a new card from the deck on Saturday morning and find out what story I “must” read next. This morning, though not a Saturday, I decided to start getting back on track. I drew the four of hearts, leading me to John Steinbeck’s story, “Flight.”

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(for those who are new visitors to Bibliophilopolis, my annual short story reading projects involves mapping out fifty-two stories to read during the year [52 weeks, 52 stories!] and assigning each story to a playing card in a 52-card deck, roughly organizing the suits as follows:

Hearts: Favorite Authors
Clubs: Famous Authors I may or may not have read
Diamonds: Female Authors
Spades: Ghost, Scary or Sci-Fi Stories

Once a week (in theory anyway) a new card is drawn from the deck and “fate decides” which story I will read next, sometimes with curious coincidences.
A list of all the stories on my list is found on my page on the left titled: “Deal Me In” – 2012 Short story reading selections. I encourage everyone to try this as an annual project some year.)

Since Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors, his story was in the hearts suit. It resides in my library in an old badly used (by a former owner, of course!) anthology of thirty six stories titled “Short Story Masterpieces” edited by Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine. I don’t remember where I picked this one up, but I’m a sucker for anthologies, and its condition didn’t deter me. It was first published in 1954 and contains several of the stories in my 2012 reading project.

(Below: a young John Steinbeck)

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***Some Spoilers follow***

Though a little disappointed in the story overall – it WAS Steinbeck, after all, and I “expected more” – it was still interesting to me. The characters in the story are a young, 19-year old “man,” Pepe and his family, consisting of widowed mother and his two siblings, twelve and fourteen years old. The location is a familiar one to Steinbeck: California.

Easygoing but somewhat indolent, Pepe seems concerned with whether or not “he is a man.” His mother doesn’t think he is yet, saying at one point, “A boy gets to be a man when a man is needed. Remember this thing. I have known boys forty years old because there was no need for a man.” Is this perhaps the moral of the story? It could be, I suppose, but I didn’t really think so.

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Pepe’s legacy from his father (long since dead – from a rattlesnake bite: “When one is bitten on the chest there is not much that can be done”) is a black knife, a switchblade from the sound of it. Pepe has become proficient at throwing the knife with lethal force into a redwood post on their farm. The wary reader suspects that such a skill may lead to trouble…

His mother sends him on an errand to Monterey (“alone”) to buy medicine. He views this as a rite of passage via which he will “become a man.” She directs him to stay the night there at a friends house. He returns early, though, and from the look in his eyes, Mama knows something has happened. There was a quarrel and in reaction to insults – and a threatening approach – the knife had flown from his hand “almost by itself.” We understand he is a fugitive, and the latter two-thirds of the story deal with his flight (there’s that title!) into. The nearby mountains and canyons.

Though armed (now with a gun) and possessing some degree of sense, we know it will not be enough to elude and outwit his pursuers, who likely really are men. I enjoyed the natural descriptions of the land during his flight, and his encounters with wildlife including a mountain lion, a rattlesnake, lizards, etc. I’ll leave it as a homework assignment for you to discover if he is successful or not in his flight. It’s a short story of about twenty pages – easy reading during a lunch hour or on the bus or rail for a daily commute. One place you can find it for free online is here.

What are your thoughts about Steinbeck? Have you read any of his short stories or, like me, mostly just his novels? Where does he rank among your list of favorite authors?

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8 Comments

  1. Dale said,

    June 28, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    I’ve never read any of Steinbeck’s short stories, but this one sounded interesting. ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ has always been a favorite! While I haven’t used a deck of cards, the weekly short story has become a great experience!

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  2. Jay said,

    June 29, 2012 at 7:08 am

    I may read The Grapes of Wrath here in the next couple weeks. It is being discussed by the “Shared Pages” book club over at Bookmama’s Bookstore in Irvington in July. I’ve read many of Steinbeck’s novels, but would you believe never that one? (maybe its because I’ve already seen the great classic movie version with Henry Fonda and figured the book”couldn’t be anybetterthanthat.”) 🙂
    -Jay

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    • Richard D. Boyle said,

      June 29, 2012 at 4:39 pm

      Hi Jay, I was given a collection of Steinbeck called “The Short Novels of John Steinbeck” in 1950 which sparked my interest in his work. I then majored in American literature in college and read all the major Steinbeck work including “Grapes of Wrath” and also saw the Henry Fonda movie about that time. While Hemingway’s short stories are much more well known I do love “The Red Pony” and “The Leader of the People”. I love his feel for what I call “Steinbeck Country”, the Salinas valley and the Monterrey area in general and went out of my way to visit “The Long Valley” and the Steinbeck home when in California. I recently reread “Grapes” after nearly 60 years and was surprised at how much I seemed to be reading it for the first time. The book was the same but I was not and I saw it through the filters of decades of experience and additional reading. I am very partial to “East of Eden” as a multi-generational saga from which the James Dean movie only takes the last several chapters. In a sense Steinbeck’s short stories, at least some of them, are deeper and more complex than his novels which may be why his novels are more popular and well known. When I first read “Grapes”, it was not clear to me how many parallels there were to the book of “Exodis”. When I reread it recently, the references jumped off the page much as the relationships in “East of Eden” are a modern retelling of the Cain and Abel story. Thanks for putting me onto your blog. I love it. Richard

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      • Jay said,

        June 30, 2012 at 12:40 pm

        Hi Richard,

        Glad you enjoyed your visit to “Bibliophilopolis.” I’m a big fan of Steinbeck too. I read a slim volume once that sounds like the one you mention, but as I recall it just had the two stories, The Red Pony and Junius Maltby in it. In a high school English Class I was introduced to the Henry Fonda movie version of Grapes of Wrath and it remains one of my favorites, although I still haven’t read the book. That may change soon.

        East of Eden was memorable to me because it was voted to be the first book read by my first book club back in the 90s. I was afraid we’d scare off all of our tentative members since it is of such epic length, but we made it through and everyone enjoyed it.

        Later I read several others, Cannery Row, The Pearl, Tortilla Flat, and Of Mice and Men. I also discovered one I’d never heard of, The Wayward Bus, in a used bookstore and read that one too.

        Perhaps my favorite, though, is the non-fiction Travels with Charley, since I am a veteran of many cross country road trips myself.

        -Jay

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  3. Richard D. Boyle said,

    June 30, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Thanks for your note Jay. I have also read all the titles you mention. I reread “Travels with Charlie” last year for the first time since the mid-’60s to see how well it held up and enjoyed it more than the first time even to the point of wanting to retrace his journey. I was especially moved by his reaction to the scene he witnessed in New Orleans at the height of the opposition to integration when the women took turns taunting and screaming at six year old little black girls trying to attend the newly integrated schools. It was such an emotional scene that it is difficult to read even now and exemplified Steinbeck’s humanity and visceral reaction to injustice and mistreatment of “the little guy”. He tends to deal with universal themes and as a result his books do not seem dated even decades later. I have already spent several hours reading older entries in your excellent blog and look forward to much more. Richard

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    • Jay said,

      July 1, 2012 at 11:35 am

      Thanks for the kind words, Richard. I posted briefly about Travels with Charley on here once, too. You may have already run across that one – I think it was more than a year ago, though.
      -Jay

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  4. 4everoverhead said,

    July 3, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    I read “Flight” in either high school or as a freshman in college, I can’t quite remember which. Since I read it when i was around the same age as the main character, I remember feeling empathy and a bit of commonality with Pepe.

    I’m hosting a John Steinbeck Reading Challenge at my blog, if you or anyone else is interested. Anyone is welcome to join. I’ll be reading all of his published works from Cup of Gold through the Vietnam dispatches.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      July 4, 2012 at 4:58 pm

      Thanks for thr comment & for stopping by, 4ever.

      Ambitious project/challenge you have there! When I read The Grapes of Wrath and post about it, I’ll be sure to include a link.

      -Jay

      Like


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