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East of Eden
by Julia Callahan  

I feel like there are these certain books that we look at and hem and haw over because we know that we are supposed to read them, but don't want to really delve into them. Maybe they're classics, so they've been built up over time. Maybe they're long and we don't want to do that to ourselves at the moment. Maybe we just don't want to read them, even though we, as seasoned readers, feel an obligation to read them to be 'well read.'

I felt all of this, and more, about reading East of Eden. I grew up extremely close to Salinas, California, and John Steinbeck is a kind of legend, a hero of the central coast whose descriptions of the mountains and valleys and rivers and farmland is still unparalleled by any other writer. To me, Steinbeck always felt like a burden. We were forced to read his books in school, making our way through The Pearl and The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. I hated him in a way it's only possible for a school-age child to hate an author that they are forced to read.

A few years ago I went on a road trip from L.A. to Seattle. I had recently re-read The Grapes of Wrath and loved it and had decided to give the tome that is East of Eden another go. My grandmother had been trying to get me to read this book for years, declaring it the best book about my homeland that I could ever hope to get my hands on. She'd given me an old worn copy years ago that had sat, untouched on my bookshelf as I made my way through high school and then college.

But finally, as I delved into the first chapter of East of Eden, I saw it. I saw the mountains and valleys, the rivers and farmlands of my youth vividly in my head. And as I got into the meat of the story, I fell in love with each and every character. Despite their flaws and their misgivings, their successes and failures, I loved them deeply. From the mother turned madame, to the cold, distant father, and the sons forced to commit the sins of the father again and again for all time, East of Eden finally brought Steinbeck to me. Once and for all, he was my writer, writing of my home. And though he is just as powerful and just as eloquent whether or not you've visited the much changed Salinas Valley or have only had a look around in your mind, East of Eden was worth digging through the indifference of the classic because I found the perfect novel.

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