Favourite fictional father: A character in The Red Pony

Day 15: Fathers don’t figure in most of the novels I’ve read, or at least I can’t recall them, with the exception of Atticus Finch, the fictional father most likely to be mentioned in relation to today’s prompt. So, I’ll approach the question from a different angle.

red pony
Photo courtesy of Ali Taylor

Four father figures share the drama in one of my favorite novels, a children’s book with a message for adults, The Red Pony by John Steinbeck. The interaction of the men in the story is especially realistic. I remember them vividly. The primary father, Carl Tiflin, is the rigid antagonist. Contrasted is old Billy Buck, “a broad, bandy-legged little man with a walrus mustache, with square hands, puffed and muscled on the palms.” These two, one a rancher and the other a ranch hand, are central in a boy’s childhood:

The high jangling note of the triangle put the boy Jody in motion. He was only a little boy, ten years old, with hair like dusty yellow grass and with shy polite gray eyes, and with a mouth that worked when he thought. The triangle picked him up out of sleep. It didn’t occur to him to disobey the harsh note.

You can see where this is going, as Stu Allen would say, and of course there’s a pony involved. Halfway through the story, a third man, black-eyed Gitano, appears at the crest of the hill, walks slowly to the boy’s house, and announces his return to the rancho where he was born. Carl treats the old man like a beggar and refuses to allow him to stay. Later in the book, Jody’s dignified, white-haired maternal grandfather arrives for a two-week visit, his constant reminiscences about westering yet another irritation to Jody’s father, Carl.

For me, the most memorable part of the book is the conclusion of Part I, “The Gift,” which was first published in 1933 in the North American Review. It comes at the culmination of a search:

The pony’s tracks were plain enough, dragging through the frostlike dew on the young grass, tired tracks with little lines between them where the hoofs had dragged. They headed for the brush line halfway up the ridge. Jody broke into a run and followed them. The sun shone on the sharp white quartz that stuck through the ground here and there. As he followed the plain trail, a shadow cut across in front of him. He looked up and saw a high circle of black buzzards, and the slowly revolving circle dropped lower and lower. The solemn birds soon disappeared over the ridge. Jody ran faster then, forced on by panic and rage. The trail entered the brush at last and followed a winding route among the tall sagebrushes.

The scene that follows is disturbingly pitch-perfect, and then it wrecks your assumptions, which makes it unforgettable. It works because of Steinbeck’s characterization of the fathers. If you read the book, then you’ll know which one of them is my favorite.

My copy is a tattered but beautifully watercolor-illustrated edition of The Red Pony published in 1945 by Viking. The original manuscripts for the four parts of the novel may be at Stanford University or one of nine other institutions that house Steinbeck collections. A year ago, Suzanne Roth Fulton and I were awestruck by one of Steinbeck’s elegantly handwritten journal-manuscripts that we arranged to read at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Between Salinas and Prunedale lies the ranch that was the setting for The Red Pony. Detailed classroom materials for teaching the book in grades six through twelve can be found on the website of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University. But you’ll never be too old to read this one.

BookADay-The Borough Press

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