‘Sure,’ said George. ‘We kinda look after each other.’ He indicated Lennie with his thumb. ‘He ain’t bright. Hell of a good worker, though. Hell of a nice fella, but he ain’t bright. I’ve knew him for a long time.’

Slim looked through George and beyond him. ‘Ain’t many guys travel around together.’ He mused. ‘I don’t know why. Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.’

I had to study Steinbeck’s The Pearl when I was preparing for my Junior Cert exams. Sadly I suspect having to read a book in school often has the effect off killing of any interest the writing might invoke. Obviously not always, but in my mind the writing of Steinbeck is synonymous with the schoolroom. This is a real shame, as it has taken sixteen years for me to read another book of his.

George and Lennie are labourers travelling on the road during the Great Depression. It is a hard time for everyone and few can afford to work land on their own, becoming itinerant farm hands to make what little money they can. George complains often about how he has to care for Lennie, a giant of a man with the mind of a child. Not knowing his own strength, the gentle giant was involved in an incident at their last job that forced the two men to go on the run. George desperately tries to teach Lennie not to draw attention to himself, promising a bright future once they earn enough, living off land of their own, with rabbits that he can play with as a reward for his good behavior.

After they arrive at their new job, George quickly realizes that they are going to have to keep their heads down. The boss’ son Curley takes an immediate dislike to Lennie, looking to prove himself by getting into a fight with the much larger man. If that was not bad enough, Curley’s wife of two weeks has a habit of flirting with the labourers, which only makes the jumped up landowner’s son even angrier. When elderly farmhand Candy offers to go in with the two men on their plan to buy property of their own, it seems their dreams are just within reach. George just has to make sure Lennie does not draw any undue attention to himself.

Steinbeck writes simply and directly without sentiment, or overwrought moralizing. When Lennie begs George to talk about their wonderful plans for the future it is heart-breaking, as is his childlike joy at petting small, vulnerable animals. Unfortunately as he does not know his own strength, he can accidentally harm such creatures, an ominous hint of where Steinbeck intends to take his story.

The symbol of an elderly dog close to death lies at the heart of this story. In a time of such economic desperation men are reduced to the state of animals and the long suffering dog’s fate reminds his owner Candy that he can expect little more mercy.

This book is so sad it brought a tear to my eye, but I also could not help but admire Steinbeck’s gift for expressing such humble truth.