Prather’s Pick: “Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage” is an interesting read

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Diane Prather

Susan Shillinglaw spent twenty-five years researching and writing “Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage” — this week’s featured book. The book, published in 2013, can be found at the Moffat County Library.

Shillinglaw is a leading expert on John Steinbeck’s life and work. She directed the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University from 1987 to 2005. During that time she edited the “Steinbeck Newsletter,” organized conferences, taught classes and lectured — all about Steinbeck.

Besides this week’s featured book, Shillinglaw has also written “A Journey into Steinbeck’s California” and wrote introductions for seven Penguin Classic editions of Steinbeck’s works, including “The Portable Steinbeck.” She was the coeditor of “John Steinbeck’s America.”

Currently, the author is scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas and a professor of English at San Jose University.

The book begins with “Renegades,” a chapter devoted to the childhood years of Carol Janella Henning and John Ernst Steinbeck. According to the author, “…their families and environments were, in many ways, similar.” The chapter provides the reader with background information about the couple’s early years with their families.

Carol and John met in June 1928. Carol was a secretarial assistant to Adolph Schilling of Schilling Spice. When Carol became ill, he insisted that she take a vacation. So Carol and her sister Idell set out for Lake Tahoe. Idell was hoping to see her boyfriend, Lloyd Shebley, who was working at the Tahoe Fish Hatchery. That’s where John Steinbeck was working, too, having left a prior job. He was a temporary assistant with Shebley where he fed the fish eight times a day, cleaned troughs, guided visitors through the hatchery and other jobs — all for $115 a month.

John was working alone at the Fish Hatchery that day when the two girls arrived. Carol and Idell learned that he was a writer, having just written “Cup of Gold.” Carol found that interesting. Lloyd and Idell, John and Carol went out that night. It was love at first sight for John. John and Carol were inseparable.

There was a year of courtship, and John and Carol married in 1930. “Make it New,” the second chapter of the book recounts their courtship and early-married years. Likewise, the rest of the book provides detailed information about the rest of their married life together and the years that followed their divorce.

The part of the book I enjoyed the most deals with the writing, publishing and aftermath of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Before he ever started writing the book, Carol had become an important ally in his writing. She had secretarial training so she was able to edit his manuscripts. He wrote, and she typed up what he wrote. She critiqued his work, and he listened.

Carol urged John to write a novel about the Southwest migrants. That’s why he started writing “The Grapes of Wrath.” According to Shillinglaw, the book was “their shared creation.” John called it “Carol’s book” and dedicated the book to her. John wrote the manuscript, she typed and edited it, and Carol even helped John come up with a title. They gave the book “their all.”

The couple could never have guessed that something they had so looked forward to could turn so “sour.” After it was published in 1939, the Steinbecks received countless letters a day, some with threats. There was criticism on the book’s content, language and accuracy. The couple was not prepared for the unwanted publicity. Schools and libraries banned the book. Copies of “The Grapes of Wrath” was publically burned.

Even though others praised the book, the stress was too much for the Steinbecks. They separated and finally divorced in 1943.

The book also covers the years following their divorce.

“Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage” is a fascinating book with lots of detail and about 10 pages of Selected Bibliography. If you enjoy reading John Steinbeck’s books, you will also enjoy this biography.

The book is published by University of Nevada Press, 2013. The book costs $34.95 in hardcover.

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