“On Saturday afternoon Billy Buck, the ranch-hand, raked together the last of the old year’s haystack and pitched small forkfuls over the wire fence to a few mildly interested cattle. High in the air small clouds like puffs of cannon smoke were driven eastward by the March wind. The wind could be heard whishing in the brush on the ridge crests, but no breath of it penetrated down into the ranch-cup.”
–John Steinbeck, The Leader of the People.(1937)
I first read that paragraph, the opening of Steinbeck’s famous short story, in high school and it has stayed with me ever since. Not because of the character or the plot—too early for those to come into play—but because of the setting. A simple setting, but one that pulls you in, makes you want to be part of it and actually resonates in your soul. How does he do it? To start with, he chooses the wind. It’s a very special, particular wind yet it’s also universal. It’s a boisterous early spring wind, blowing from the west. It heralds change.
This guest post is by Gordon Chaplin. Chaplin is the author of the novel Joyride and several works of nonfiction, including Dark Wind: A Survivor’s Tale of Love and Loss and Full Fathom Five: Ocean Warming and a Father’s Legacy. A former journalist for Newsweek, the Baltimore Sun, and the Washington Post, he has worked on sea conservation with the group Niparaja and since 2003 has been a research associate at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. His latest novel, Paraiso, is now available. He lives with his wife and daughter in New York City and Hebron, New York. Visit him at gordonchaplin.com and follow him @Gordon_Chaplin.
Photo by George Bouret.
The setting sets the stage for what comes next and almost determines it. In the next paragraph we encounter a black cypress tree full of white pigeons so we know we’re somewhere near the California coast. The hills around the ranch-cup are “washed with lean March sunshine. Silver thistles, blue lupins and a few poppies bloomed among the sage bushes.” The poppies are another giveaway. They are the California state flower.
Yes indeed. “Jody plodded up the hill toward the ridge top. When he reached the little cleft where the road came through, the afternoon wind struck him and blew up his hair and ruffled his shirt. He looked down on the little hills and ridges below and then out at the huge green Salinas Valley. He could see the white town of Salinas far out on the flat and the flash of its windows under the waning sun.” Not too far away is the Pacific coast, where Jody’s grandfather, who’s coming to visit, lives and looks out, dreaming of his days as a pioneer leading the people west across the country. He can go no further.
So there’s the setting of the story. I’ll never forget it, though its characters and plot have faded in my mind and it’s only through the setting that they can be recalled. The setting never gets in the way. It is the way of the story. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!]
I first read Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in high school, too, and was mesmerized by its mythical setting among the sardine canneries of Monterey. The book was published in 1945. When I found myself in college in the bay area in the seventies, I made a pilgrimage.
I was young and naïve and I assumed the legendary place he wrote about would still be there for me to experience. Imagine my surprise to find the whole area was now a tourist attraction! Millions of other readers of Steinbeck had had exactly the same idea.
Now that is powerful writing.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.