Pastures of Heaven - Plot Synopsis
Amongst the ugliness of the enslavement of Native Americans during the late 1700s in the name of Christianity, the text opens upon a Spanish corporal, deemed the "savage bearer of civilization," who is dispatched to capture a group of Native Americans that have abandoned the Catholic mission they were laboring to build (4). The corporal chases the runaways across the Carmel Valley and through the mountains beyond. After some time, the corporal captures the runaway Native Americans and sets off to return to the mission in Carmel. On the journey back, while pursuing a deer, the corporal arrives at a ridge where he is presented with an astonishing view of a fertile valley below. The beauty and fertility of the valley strike the corporal who marvels, alluding to Psalm 23: "Here are the green pastures of Heaven to which our Lord leadeth us" (4). From that time on, he intends on retiring to the valley which he names "Las Pasturas de Cielo" (4). Steinbeck's prologue concludes with an explanation that the corporal, who dies from the "pox," never makes it back to the valley and since the land was never granted to a Spanish nobleman, it eventually falls into the hands of squatters (4). Over the next 100 years twenty families settle the valley and begin prospering on the fertile farmland.
Part II. Bert Munroe
This story opens with a history of the old Battle farm located in the valley. The narrative begins in the present with an explanation of how the Battle farm is cursed—at least the residents of the valley think it is. For five years it has remained fallow since its last residents mysteriously abandoned it. The history of the farm begins with the first man to attempt to tame the land in the 1860's. George Battle, a young man from New York, sets about purchasing the land and building a farmhouse. He marries a local woman shortly after his arrival and starts a family.
Things do not go well for George Battle. Despite having a productive farm, years of hard work age him rapidly. Upon his death, George Battle's son, John, takes over the farm after a stint doing missionary work. John does not have the love or concern for the land that his father once had and so "[t]he farm slipped back to nature" (8). John, more concerned with religion, and fixated on devils and demons due to insanity, is killed by a rattlesnake. When the residents discover the gruesome sight of his body many days later, the seeds of "dread" residents felt about the farm start to germinate (9).
"For ten years the farm lay fallow" after the incident with John Battle (9). A foreign family named Mustrovic then takes over the land. Their arrival is "sudden and mysterious" as one day they just appear and begin reclaiming the land which had completely fallen back to nature (10). This apparently transient family, reclusive and quiet, lives in only one room of the farmhouse and makes no repairs to the house itself. They focus on taming the land, and after only two years the Mustrovics had made the land "beautiful again" (10). One day, the Mustrovics suddenly disappear, further confirming the existence of the curse the townsfolk already believe hovers over the farm The family disappears as suddenly as it had arrived, leaving food on the table as if the Mustrovics had vanished while sitting down to eat dinner.
After creating the mystique of the curse, Steinbeck introduces Bert Munroe. Bert, plagued by bad luck with business ventures, believes there is a curse upon him. Seeing the old Battle farm, he decides to take the chance at making a new life for himself and his family. Steinbeck explains to his reader Bert Munroe's motivation for the purchase: "In farming, he thought, lay the only line of endeavor that did not cross with his fate" (17). Thus, he purchases the abandoned Battle farm and in a short time Bert remodels the farmhouse and converts the fallow land into productive fields. Bert quickly settles into the town and works hard to gain acceptance with the other residents.
Part III: Shark Wicks
Part three of the text explores one of the valley's residents named Edward "Shark" Wicks. Shark desires attention, carries an air of importance, and garners respect from residents in the town. Shark is considered the smartest man in the town when it comes to business dealings. He dispenses advice when asked and is prone to asking residents for their opinions on business matters he is considering. When asked a question, "Shark went carefully into the problem and ended by giving startlingly good advice" (22). Shark's importance is built upon a foundation of lies, however, as the truth is he has no money, and all his business ventures are simply fabrications.
Shark and his wife Katherine, though both very plain looking people, give birth to a beautiful daughter named Alice. Alice grows to be more beautiful year by year, but despite her beauty, she is "an incredibly stupid, dull and backward little girl" (25). This imperfection pleases Katherine as it gives her something of an edge over Alice. By the age of fourteen, Alice is the loveliest girl in the town, and her father, Shark, becomes ever more jealous of other men because of this beauty. Shark is obsessed with keeping Alice's purity and beauty, even going so far as to check with his wife to make sure Alice's menstrual cycle arrives each month. When he suggests they perform a physical exam to make sure her virginity is intact, Katherine vehemently objects.
Shark, with his over-protectiveness and obsession for Alice's purity, learns that his daughter has danced with Bert Munroe's son Jimmy while he was out of town. Jimmy, "lean and handsome," was raised in the city, and possesses a worldliness other boys in the town lack (28). This worldliness, coupled with the rumors in town about Jimmy's dealings with young women, sends Shark Wicks into a rage. Grabbing a gun and marching toward the Munroe farm, Shark is arrested and held for bond. Shark's reputation as a successful man comes crashing down around him.
Shark, having to tell the judge he has no money to post bond, admits to the judge and town that his business acumen is all a façade. He in fact has no money and is mortified by the admission. Katherine, seeing the pitiful state her husband is in, encourages Shark to leave the Pastures of Heaven and start a new life in the city.
Part IV. Tularecito
Steinbeck opens this story with the discovery of a baby along the roadside in town. The newborn child, having a large head, stubby arms, and lanky legs, is affectionately given the name Tularecito, meaning "little frog," by the man who adopts him, Franklin Gomez. By six years old, Tularecito is as strong as a man, but lacks any intelligence. Mentally retarded, but gifted with the artistic ability to "carve remarkably correct animals from sandstone," he works on the Gomez farm and does not attend school (43). Tularecito has one quirk; his normally docile demeanor changes to ravenous violence if "one of the products of is hands" is carelessly handled or broken (43).
When he is eleven years old, the town officials decide Tularecito needs to attend school in town despite Franklin Gomez's misgivings. Once Tularecito is enrolled in school, his artistic talent is quickly discovered and encouraged. One day Tularecito is allowed to draw animals on the school blackboard to express his talent. When the teacher, Miss Martin, asks the class to erase the blackboard in preparation for the afternoon arithmetic lessons, Tularecito springs into action, and attacks "with the strength of a man, and a madman at that" (44). Miss Martin tells Franklin Gomez she wants the boy to be whipped as punishment. Tularecito vacantly accepts his punishment and redecorates the schoolroom over night. Miss Martin, disarmed by Tularecito's behavior, leaves her teaching position at the end of the school year.
A new schoolteacher named Miss Morgan takes over the teaching position. She is more energetic and well liked by her students, especially because she reads interesting stories in class. Amongst the books and stories she reads are fairy tales and these spark Tularecito's imagination. Tularecito begins to believe he is a mythical character called a gnome, and partially encouraged by Miss Martin, sets off to find his people. Tularecito has a "loneliness for [his] own people who live deep in the cool earth" and he sets about digging into the ground to find them (51). Wandering the farms at night, he looks, he calls out, and he digs holes to find his people, but there is no answer. Bert Munroe, finding one of these holes one morning, starts to fill it back in. Tularecito sees Bert's actions and savagely attacks him. In the end, Tularecito's violent outbursts and mental retardation force him to be sent off to an asylum for the criminally insane.
Part V. Helen Van Deventer
Steinbeck's fifth story deals with a woman named Helen Van Deventer. Helen, as Steinbeck explains, is a woman that "hungered for tragedy, and life had lavishly heaped it upon her" (55). Having been widowed after only three months of marriage, Helen gives birth to a daughter only six months after the death of her husband. The child, named Hilda, is prone to violent outbursts, and is diagnosed as having mental problems. Helen refuses to seek professional help and instead takes it upon herself to raise and care for her daughter for whom she feels completely responsible.
As Hilda enters her teen years, her mental state degenerates further and she becomes increasingly difficult to control. Hilda is plagued by terrible nightmares, tells lies, and even runs away. Still refusing help from doctors, Helen moves Hilda out of the city and into a more peaceful and relaxing environment. She builds a beautiful cabin in the Pastures of Heaven where she plans to care for her daughter and live peacefully.
Bert Munroe decides to pay a welcoming visit to the town's newest resident. Upon arriving at Helen Van Deventer's cabin, he is greeted by Hilda through the barred windows of her bedroom. "They want me to die," Hilda tells Bert (63). Bert, suspecting the girl may be troubled, continues to the house and is sent away by the house servant.
Though Hilda is unaffected by her new surroundings, Helen is "[…] filled with a new sense of peace" (67). She begins to appreciate the unvarnished beauty of her new environment and is filled with vigor over the abundance of life surrounding her. When Hilda escapes from her room the night of Bert's visit, Helen grabs one of her husband's shotguns and heads out of the house in search of her. Hilda is found shot by a stream with a gun beside her. The death is ruled a suicide due to Hilda's documented mental issues.
Part VI. Junius Maltby
Junius Maltby worked as a clerk in San Francisco when he was forced to seek a better climate for his failing health. The Pastures of Heaven offers the climate he needs, and "the name alone meant something personal to him" (73). Junius becomes a hopelessly lazy man while living in the small farm community. Taken with reading and sitting outside by a small stream, Junius ignores most all of the people near to him. Having married the widow he was boarding with, she bore him a son. When influenza strikes down his wife and he is left alone with the son his wife had given him, Junius must take it upon himself to raise the child he names Robbie.
Robbie is a bright and energetic child that has a natural leadership quality. Though he is seemingly different, the other school children flock to him and enjoy the games and fun he invents in the schoolyard. The school teacher, Molly Morgan, recognizes Robbie's talents and pays a visit to the Maltby farm. Molly is quite impressed with Junius and starts to appreciate his casual manner and love for sitting by the stream, reading, and philosophizing. Despite the fact that they live in abject poverty, Molly sees that the Maltbys are quite happy and content. When the Munroes and Whitesides decide to give Robbie some decent clothes to wear for school, they ignore Molly Morgan's warning about confronting the boy. "I really wish you wouldn't do it," implores Molly (94). Upon seeing the clothes, Robbie realizes he is poor for the first time. Embarrassed, he runs out of the school house. Junius decides to return to San Francisco to work as an accountant in order to provide a better life for his son. "He's lived like an animal too long" explains Junius to Molly Morgan while waiting for the bus to arrive (97). They get into the bus and leave the Pastures of Heaven.
Part VII. Rosa and Maria Lopez
The Lopez sisters occupy what can be considered the worst tract of land in the Pastures of Heaven. The sisters, having lost their mother and father, struggle to make a living. Having poor and rocky soil, the jovial sisters are unable to garner enough food from the land to even feed themselves. The two decide that they will open a small restaurant in the house in order to survive, but the business does not prosper as they expect.
One day Rosa decides to have sex with a customer in an attempt to sell more food, and her efforts are rewarded. Rosa and Maria agree "it is necessary to encourage [the] customers if [they] are to succeed," but as good Catholics, the sisters are always careful to repent and pray to the Virgin Mary after their transgressions (100). Their business indeed prospers with the encouragement they offer the customers. Word of their encouragements soon spread throughout town. Eventually complaints are made to the local sheriff and he is forced to visit the Lopez house and close down the business. This blow to the sisters is the breaking point. Having become accustomed to their new, more pampered lifestyle, the sisters decide to leave the Pastures of Heaven and relocate to the city and continue to work as prostitutes.
Part VIII. Molly Morgan
Steinbeck introduces Molly Morgan in two previous stories and explores the character in detail in chapter eight. Steinbeck uses her arrival in town to interview for a vacant teaching position to explore her past. Readers learn through flashbacks during her interview that Molly grew up in the city in poverty. Her father was a traveling salesman and only came home twice per year. His arrival creates a buzz throughout the neighborhood as he always returns with "presents such as no one had ever seen" (116). He always brings little gifts for all the neighborhood children.
One day Molly's father leaves and never returns. Her mother assumes he must be dead, but the children refuse to believe it. Molly and her brothers maintain the romantic idea that he is off on an adventure somewhere and that there "was some good reason why he could not come back to them" (120). Molly grows up and goes off to college to earn a teaching degree.
Molly Morgan is hired and settles into her new job and easily gains great popularity with the town's residents. Things go smoothly for her until Bert Munroe tells the story of the farm hand he hired that goes off on drunken binges. Bert describes the captivating stories this farm hand tells his kids about unusual places he has been and upon returning from one of his "periodic drunks [...] he's always got some kind of a present for [his] kid Manny" (127). Molly is forced to deal with the real possibility that her father is still alive and living in the town. Unable to deal with the prospect of facing her father, Molly sees no choice but to leave the Pastures of Heaven immediately.
Part IX. Raymond Banks
Steinbeck introduces another resident of the Pastures of Heaven named Raymond Banks. Raymond is a successful farmer, and the other residents "looked upon [his] place as the model farm of the valley" (132). Raymond is no stranger to hard work and he spends much of his time working the fields in the hot sun. Along with his productive fields, Raymond is a very successful poultry farmer.
Children love Raymond and he loves children. Often young boys from the valley would visit his farm. Steinbeck points out that "most of all, the boys liked the killing time" (133). Raymond kills chickens to bring to market and the boys love watching him work. Raymond explains to them how to properly kill the chickens, but never lets them do it themselves for fear they would make a mistake and the chicken would needlessly suffer.
Steinbeck mentions that Raymond is a friend of the warden at San Quentin Prison and is often invited to watch an execution and act as a witness. Raymond enjoys visiting his friend and watching the executions. Bert Munroe, still fairly new to town, but having heard about Raymond's trips to watch prisoners being hanged, asks Raymond if he can join him on his next visit.
Raymond gets permission to have Bert join him, but Bert, having some time to think about it, develops deep reservations about attending an execution. Bert finally decides he will not attend and speaks to Raymond about his decision. "I'm scared I couldn't get it out of my head afterwards," says Bert (144). Raymond does not understand Bert's problem despite Bert's attempts to explain himself further. Upon reflection, Raymond later decides not to attend the execution himself and curses Bert for making him feel self conscious about his witnessing the executions. Prior to his conversation with Bert, Raymond never conceived of anything odd or wrong about his attendance.
Part X. Pat Humbert
Pat Humbert was raised by parents that gave birth to him at an older age. He grew up believing that "no young thing had any virtue" and that "youth should think of nothing but the duty it owed to age" (149). Pat's youth simply contrasted too much with his parents and therefore he grew up in a home where his parents resented him and forced him to cater to them night and day. Pat stoically cared for his parents right up to their dying day. Upon their deaths, Pat locks up the sitting room from where his parents oppressively dictated his life and avoids it for years.
Pat continues on the farm after his parent's death and begins to take on many public responsibilities. Because he cannot stand being alone on the farm and is haunted by thoughts of the sitting room, he becomes involved in civic functions and joins several social clubs. Though he constantly seeks the companionship of others, Steinbeck explains that "in spite of his craving for company, he never became part of any group he joined" (157). He seems always to remain on the periphery of gatherings. Socially he is very active, but at night his thoughts focus on the bitter memories of his parents. They haunt him and staying active keeps Pat from dwelling on his memories too often.
Pat, upon overhearing hearing a comment by Mae Munroe about how pretty the outside of his house looks, decides to remodel the sitting room in the house—the dreaded sitting room in which his parents convalesced for many years. The new room would serve as the launch pad for his eventual courtship of Mae. Studying interiors and styles, he feverishly works to make the sitting room as charming as the outside of the house. When he is done, it is as fine a job as the magazine photographs he studied. Pat is convinced Mae will be impressed with the charm he has added to the old farmhouse.
Pat, with the room finally finished and the courage to pay Mae a visit and begin his courtship, arrives at the Munroe house to discover a party in full swing. Bert greets Pat and explains the party is to celebrate Mae's engagement to Bill Whiteside. Pat is shattered and returns to the farm that he now sees as "dark and unutterably dreary" (168). Despite the work he has done remodeling and removing the items that remind him of his parents, his thoughts still drift back to them. He cannot bear spending the night in the house so he goes out to sleep in the barn.
Part XI. Richard Whiteside
This story begins with the history of the Whiteside farm. Steinbeck explores the motivations of its founder, Richard Whiteside, an early settler in the Pastures of Heaven. Richard Whiteside's dream, above all else, is to establish a long family lineage and a productive farm to provide a sustainable and renewable resource for the future Whiteside generations who will live on the land. Though he longs for a large family, Richard and his wife produce only one son, John, to whom Richard passes many of his qualities and the farm. Though different in many ways, John possesses his father's desire for a large family and the desire to pass the homestead and farm onto future generations of Whitesides. Also like his father, John Whiteside, and his wife Willa, are blessed with only one child, whom they name William.
William, called Bill, is very different from the previous Whiteside men. Bill is a more modern young man and savvy in business. He purchases "a partnership in a Ford agency," announces he is going to marry Mae Munroe, and tells John and Willa he intends to leave the Pastures of Heaven, and the Whiteside farm, for Monterey (191). Bill has no intention of farming like his father and grandfather before him. John and Willa strongly disagree with William's decision, but support him and hope he will have a change of heart in the future. Despite being invited to live with his son in Monterey, John and Willa intend to carry on and work the farm after their son Bill leaves.
John Whiteside sees the farm needs attention. "I have let it go for a long time," says John to Bert Munroe (193). Bert tells John, "If you burn that brush this fall you'll get fine pasture next spring" (193). John agrees, and with Bert's help, starts burning the brush off the land. Despite good conditions for burning, an ember floats over to John's house and sets it ablaze. John, seeing the dream of two generations burning down, and knowing Bill has shattered that dream, just sits and watches it burn to the ground. He accepts that life has changed and decides to leave the valley and move in with his son Bill and new wife Mae in the city.
Part XII. Epilogue
Steinbeck offers a short epilogue to his book. A simple sight-seeing tour winds through the Salinas Valley working its way from the city, over hills, and up on the same ridge the Spanish corporal stood upon centuries earlier. People from different positions in life all see the valley as a place that promises something appealing and pleasant for them. A businessman looks at the land and sees a fortune to be made in real estate. A young couple gazes down at the valley and dares to think about the wonderful and peaceful life they could live there. A priest dares to dream of ministering to the good town folk who live below and how good and easy it would be to live amongst them. An old man looks upon the valley and sees a place where he might simply sit and ponder his life's decisions to help him make sense of his life. The tour bus driver tells his passengers he sees a simple life of farming for himself if he were to live there. Thus The Pastures of Heaven ends in great irony as the tour group's pleasant imaginings are contrasted with the histories of pain and loss that plague the settlers of the beautiful valley.