Five stories—and two arguable novellas that read like historical fables—of the northern California so familiar to the author’s father.
“Sing Fat and the Imperial Duchess of Woo” is the longest of these at nearly a hundred pages: a Chinese man comes to the US just in time for the Gold Rush, spends eight years repanning the discarded dirt of miners for the residual gold dust, becomes apprentice to an apothecary, falls in love, then sets off on a journey through an unexplored California only to have his betrothed die, with the result that he instead marries the Imperial Duchess of Woo—a cat. Breadth of experience is clearly more important than depth in Steinbeck’s pieces. In “The Night Guide,” a half-Indian boy with special powers via his ancestry rescues his mother from an apocryphal storm, while “The Wool-Gatherer” is a borderline YA fable about a boy who sees the Big Sur Bear, a beast the size of a barn with the reputation of a dragon; proving that the experience was true becomes a kind of Holy Grail quest, though the search bears no real rhetorical fruit. “Blind Luck” is another near-novella about a young man’s descent into the seaman’s life, and in “An Unbecoming Grace,” a doctor’s house-calls through the historical Monterey become a tour of community, of history, and of hidden crime. The marketing behind this debut collection invites the natural father-son comparison, yet it’s almost as though the younger Steinbeck is afraid to try for the grandeur of the elder, as though the land he is pulled toward is out of his jurisdiction, somehow already drawn.
Stories of subtle fantasy with an open-ended feel, as if from a novelist unaccustomed to the short form. Repeat characters are perhaps a hint of the novel already underway. (N.B.: The year 2002 marks the centennial of John Steinbeck’s birth.)