Idyllic and saddening, this novella is really a collection of 4 short stories involving the same characters, a family of ranchers in the Salinas Valley. Each story centers on the young Jody Tiflin, a 10 year old boy who is on the edge of boyhood and manhood as he spends days daydreaming and fulfilling the chores expected of him by his stern, but loving father. In each of the stories, The Gift, The Great Mountains, The Promise, and The Leader of the People Jody lives through the tragedies, loss, and disappointments that are inherent in the path of an adult life. Jody carries those burdens most dearly in the The Gift and The Promise, two stories about Jody’s care for a red pony that dies of sickness and his nurturing of a pregnant horse that dies while giving birth to a young colt. The images of Jody’s feelings are raw and visceral, most especially when he attacks and kills by hand one of the buzzards eating his pony at the end of The Gift. And Jody carries that loss with him in The Promise as he doubts the hired ranch hand, Billy Buck’s ability to successfully give birth to the colt since Buck was unable to heel the Pony’s sickness.
Throughout my reading of The Red Pony I was enamored by Steinbeck’s mastery to give life to the words used to paint the picture of another time long lost to our technological world. The background of The Red Pony is simple yet hard, a place where the people live off the land and walk several miles to school each day. It is a time long gone, but I found it ironic that the in final story, The Leader of the People, Jody longs for a simpler time than the one he lives in presently. His Grandfather traveled the Oregon Trail and faced many a hardship along the way, such that his life on the rural California Coast seems simple and easy by comparison. The following passage is Jody reflecting on his Grandfather’s travels, but in many ways, it reflects upon this readers thoughts of the ranch life of the Tiflins over a hundred years ago:
“He wished he could have lived in the heroic time, but he was not of heroic timber. No one living now, save possibly Billy Buck, was worthy to do the things that they had done. A race of giants had lived then, fearless men, men of staunchness unknown in this day.” (86)
My copy of The Red Pony unexplicably included a short story titled Junius Maltby that is the tale of a San Francisco accountant who travels to Salinas to spend some time in the heat to improve his health. Maltby becomes a lazy dreamer who spends most of his time day dreaming and reading while letting his ranch and family wither away. It is a strange story, somewhat a warning towards thinking and reading too much, for we all must balance our pleasures with our responsibilities in this life.