WARNING: Ripping Book Reviews are solely the judgments of Professor VJ Duke on an unlucky book that has caused him much repulsion—in one way or another. Therefore, blame must be put on the professor and nobody else. With that in mind, read on—if you are brave enough to take it.
THE RED PONY by JOHN STEINBECK
The moving and beautiful story
Of a boy, a sorrel colt
And the sun-drenched California earth
This little inscription is on the title page of my edition. It sits out there quite brazenly and quite misleadingly. Don’t believe it for a minute. As a matter of fact, don’t believe it for a second.
The story is definitely not beautiful—nor is it moving. At least, it’s not moving in the way one would think. You see, it’s moving in the sense that it moves one to despair and dread.
The Red Pony is a very unhappy book that delights in causing misery for the reader.
Okay, then, onward!
First, I would like to start with a description of Jody, the protagonist:
He was a little boy, ten years old, with hair like dusty yellow grass and with shy polite grey eyes, and with a mouth that worked when he thought.
Jody seemed like quite a little gentleman to the professor—at first. You see, little Jody possesses viciousness in a high degree. We’ll term it Jody Cruelty. More detail later.
One fateful day—fateful, that is, because it is the way of the Steinbeck—Jody’s father brings home a red pony and presents it as a gift to Jody. Of course, something awful happens to the pony, for there can be no other way with Steinbeck.
The professor must make a quick interjection here and introduce a character who is supposedly an expert in horses, but is not; who is supposedly smart, but is not; and who is supposedly good willed, but is not: Billy Buck, the cowhand.
So, Jody gets a red pony, which he loves dearly. And he takes good care of him—until he listens to Billy Buck, or BB. You see, BB is the vessel which Steinbeck used to pour misery on all of the characters in the novel.
One fateful day—yes, another one—Jody decides to leave his pony in the corral while at school. But he’s very uncomfortable about it. This is what he says:
“If the rain comes, though—” Jody suggested.
And this is BB’s response:
“Not likely to rain today. She’s rained herself out. …If it comes on to rain—why a little rain don’t hurt a horse.”
But Jody’s still uncomfortable:
“Well, if it does come on to rain, you put him in, will you, Billy? I’m scared he might get cold so I couldn’t ride him when the time comes.”
To which BB replies emphatically:
“Oh sure! I’ll watch out for him if we get back in time. But it won’t rain today.”
But it did rain.
And the pony caught cold.
You see, BB made a big mistake. A horse might not catch cold normally from rain. But a horse in a Steinbeck story is a completely different matter. Anything that causes pain and misery will happen—probably faster than necessary.
And Jody’s pony gets much, much, much worse. At first, BB says everything will be okay; then, when that fails, he begins to try and help the pony.
He shouldn’t have.
Everything that BB does only makes the pony far worse.
Eventually, the pony dies—a rather gruesome death.
Here it is, with a touch of Jody Cruelty (it can be argued that Jody was in the right, though):
When he [i.e. Jody] arrived, it was all over. The first buzzard sat on the pony’s head and its beak had just risen dripping with dark eye fluid. Jody plunged into the circle like a cat. The black brotherhood arose in a cloud, but the big one on the pony’s head was too late. As it hopped along to take off, Jody caught its wing tip and pulled it down… …His fingers found the neck of the struggling bird. The red eyes looked into his face, calm and fearless and fierce… …Then the beak opened and vomited a stream of putrefied fluid… …He held the neck to the ground with one hand while his other found a piece of sharp white quartz. The first blow broke the beak sideways and black blood spurted from the twisted, leathery mouth corners…
Suffice to say that Jody strikes again and again till the buzzard’s head is a red pulp.
I really think I shouldn’t say anything else. Too disturbing to think on.
This is where part one ends. At this gruesome scene. The namesake of the book, dead.
Part two starts off with Jody not knowing what to do. I believe this is an accurate manifestation of the author’s feelings.
Jody practices Jody Cruelty a few times. He hurts his dog, and he kills a bird with his slingshot…all because he is quite bored.
I truly hope that Steinbeck never got bored. Never mind.
Towards the end of the book, the farm’s mare becomes pregnant, and Jody’s father promises Jody the colt.
He shouldn’t have. For now the situation is doomed
BB gets all excited and, I believe, views this as a way to redeem himself.
He shouldn’t have. For now the situation is doubly-doomed.
As the mare’s pregnancy progresses, BB continues to tell Jody that everything will be fine. After all, he knows what he’s talking about. But Jody doubts him. And, frankly, so would this professor.
When the time comes, BB finally realizes that something isn’t quite right. In the end, he ends up butchering the mare in order to save the colt.
Jody gets his colt—and it’s not mentioned for the rest of the novel.
At the time, I was wondering what Jody’s father was going to think of what BB had done to his mare. But we never find out. In fact, we never find out about anything, as the book ends void of conclusions and very unsatisfactorily.
That’s about all I can say. But, had I the opportunity, I would have made a suggestion to Mr. Steinbeck.
I would have said: “Now, Mr. Steinbeck, I really believe the title of this book is misleading. You see, it almost borders on an outright lie. Why not call the book In Search for a Red Pony, or How the Boy Never Got a Red Pony and When He Did, He Didn’t Care, or Death of a Pony, or just The Miserable? At least, Les Miz told the reader upfront what he was in for. No such favor with you, sir.”
And I’m not really sure what he would have said.
But I can assure you one thing: It would’ve been miserable.