You probably read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men back in high school. I did; it’s been on many school’s reading lists throughout the decades. I decided to dust off an old copy of Of Mice and Men and to me it is as vital now as it was when it was published nearly 80 years ago.
Of Mice and Men is about two migrant farm workers living in California named Lennie and George. Lennie is large in stature and strength but sadly, mentally slow. George, Lennie’s friend, is small, dark and much smarter than George despite his lack of a proper education. Because of Lennie’s limited mental faculties, George takes on a protective, almost big brother role, in his friendship with Lennie.
After traveling around California, George and Lennie arrive in Soledad, California, to work as field hands at a ranch. George and Lennie have one simple dream; they want to own their own plot of land where they can grow crops and raise rabbits. But at this moment, this dream is just that, a dream. Plus, they are escaping their old jobs because Lennie was accused of rape when he got a little handsy when he was attracted to the dress his accuser was wearing.
While working on the ranch, George and Lennie face foes and friends. One foe is Curley, the son of the Boss, who takes an instant dislike of George for his large stature. Curley’s wife, simply known is Curley’s wife throughout Of Mice and Men is known of her provocative, flirtatious ways. She’s also bitter because she’s feels she been denied her dream of fame and fortune as a Hollywood star.
However, Candy, a worker who lost one of his hands in an accident, befriends George and Lennie and he offers to help the two achieve the dream of owning a plot of land. George and Lennie are thrilled and tell Candy he can live with them once this happens.
And Slim, a jerk-line skinner, has a dog that has just had a litter of puppies. He gives a puppy to Lennie who vows to take care of it.
But George and Lennie’s hopes dim as they face obstacles, their own and those of their fellow workers. Curley attacks Lennie who in turn crushes Curley’s hand. Lennie finds himself attracted to Curley’s wife, who flirts with him but also treats him with utter derision. A fellow ranch hand is shunned by the other workers because he’s black (and Curley’s wife threatens him with lynching). And one ranch hand, Carlson, ends up killing Candy’s dog, which foreshadows future tragedies for George and Lennie.
These tragedies occur when George decides to leave Lennie behind on the ranch while he goes into town with the other ranch hands. Though he often stays close to Lennie, acting as his protector, George believes Lennie will be okay if he’s gone for a short while. Sadly, this turns out to be not the case, and George feels responsible for Lennie’s unintended behavior, which leads to a very tragic moment for Lennie, George and their friendship.
For a very short book, just over a hundred pages, Of Mice and Men packs a wallop, one really made me think of its themes of loneliness, oppression, powerlessness, the need for friendship and the desire to “be somebody.” These are themes so many of us can relate to, especially in an era where there is so much polarization and divisiveness in this country. I believe our country is in need of healing, and we need to regard each other with compassion. George and Lennie have their failings, but I felt nothing but empathy for their plight and I truly wanted things to work out for the both of them. It’s funny how fictional characters in a novella published decades before I was born can do this.
As I mentioned, Of Mice and Men remains a classic. It has been made into a play, which is currently being revived on Broadway and features James Franco and Chris O’Dowd. It’s been made into a couple of movies, the most recent starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich in 1992. There is even a band called Of Mice and Men.
I remember liking Of Mice and Men when I read it back in high school, but it means so much more to me now that I’ve dealt with several decades of adulthood, broken dreams and hopes for the future. It’s definitely a book that needs to be re-visited if you read it ages ago, and if you haven’t, pick up a copy and read it. You’ll be glad you did.