The Red Pony is a set of four stories about a young boy named Jody Tiflin and his family. He lives on a ranch in southern California with his parents and a farmhand named Billy. I read from various sources online that the stories were fairly autobiographical, but I have no proof of that. If they aren’t, Steinbeck at least calls on his experiences growing up in that area in writing these stories. As with every Steinbeck book that I’ve read, the details and characterizations are immaculate.
The stories center on the themes of death, life, aging, and family. The strongest and most prominent of these is probably death. In the first story, “The Gift,” Jody receives a pony from his father. The boy matures in the months that he owns this pony – going from a kid who neglects his chores and plays all day to a young adult disciplined in his work – but retains his youthful outlook of the world. He loves his horse and expects them to have a great life together. He believes Billy, the farmhand, is infallible and can cure any ailment. Jody is disillusioned on both accounts when he experiences the death of a loved one for the first time.
In “The Great Mountains,” death is seen in a different light: hopeful, triumphant, almost heroic. It takes on a third meaning in “The Promise,” where new life is coupled with death. And in the last story, “The Leader of the People,” death becomes symbolic – the death of a time period, of memories, of legend.
This novella, while well-written, doesn’t have the same depth as other Steinbeck books I’ve read. I didn’t relate to it as much as I did to The Grapes of Wrath, where the characters felt like they could have been from my own family history. But it was interesting to see a replica of the way a poor ranch family lived about a hundred years ago. I can’t imagine living like the mother of this family, constantly cooking or cleaning, tied to the house; nor can I imagine having children that disemboweled birds because they were bored, or collected reptiles in their lunch pails on the way home from school. The world I live in is so different, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that people actually did live that way, and not so very long ago. This was the way some of my grandparents lived. That fact sort of brings home how much the world has changed. Honestly, I’m glad. I’m glad for my little luxuries, for not needing to raise and kill my own food, for doctors and vets. I don’t mind that I don’t possess the same knowledge my ancestors had (how to give a horse a tracheotomy, how to turn a breech colt fetus, how to cut open infected glands to drain the pus…). I far prefer living now, even if life has lost the simplicity that it might have once had (and honestly, I’m not sure things were all that “simple” then!). Books like The Red Pony help reinforce my thankfulness.