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4.5 out of 5 stars19
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
`To A God Unknown' is the tale of a ranching family in California and how they try to survive in good years and bad on the ranch. The head of the family starts to worship an oak tree on his land that embodies the spirit of his dead father and develops a deep connectedness to the land and nature, much to the chagrin of his Christian brother. This has themes of the rhythms of nature, as well as pagan superstition and the internal struggles of one man as he struggles with traditional religion and his feelings of the purity of nature. Having read much Steinbeck before I was eager to start this book and soak myself in his beautiful prose and whilst that still held true, I did find this slightly hard to get into initially; you could tell this was one of his early books and he was finding his voice. After about thirty pages though I was enthralled and revelled in his writing until the resonant and moving conclusion. Steinbeck has the ability to reach to your very core and make you feel the passions, sadnesses and tribulations of the characters along with them and whilst in less experienced hands you may have trouble believing in and engaging with some of the ideas presented here, with Steinbecks deft touch you not only believe them but you also live and breathe them. This is a worthy addition to your Steinbeck collection and as I have stated on other reviews for his work, I have yet to read a bad Steinbeck book and this is truly no exception. This has a depth and power that will stay with you long after you have finished reading.

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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on 22 November 2002
I have read practically everything by Steinbeck, and this is my favourite.
The story of the brothers who move from the security of New England to the wild west, compares the organised and sanitised religion of the east, with the pagan and traditional religions of the natural world.
As is usual with Steinbeck, there is no conclusion as to which religion is better, morally superior etc. The reader is left to make up there own mind - and if you are left wondering, then I guess that Steinbeck must have done a good job !
This is one of the author's early novels, and once you have read it, you will think about all of the others in a different light.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 21 December 2011
This is pure Steinbeck, full of beauty and also darkness. To me the message was more about superstition and ritual rather than what many would consider religion. Joseph creats his Eden and then labours to keep everything on track despite the looming spectre of the "dry years". You realise that deep in his heart there is always the belief that he will lose everything, emphasised by the almost casual acceptance of his wifes death. The book evokes to me one of Wordsworths most memorable lines "From the heights of our exultations in our dejections do we sink so low". Do we enjoy the good times for what they are or, to the expense of our enjoyment, do we worry that they will finish and do everything that we can to ensure that they remain?
It is understandable that this book took more time to write than his longer novels. The messages in this book can be read in so many ways. You are left with the impression that as Steinbeck writes and the story develops then the web of possibilities and questions magnify.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 23 May 2010
I've been a fan of Steinbeck for a long time, since GCSE Of Mice and Men really. But this book took me totally by surprise given how soft and comfortable reading Steinbeck can be. Some scenes will always stick in my mind, with so many visual images unique to this work - without giving spoilers: Joseph dry humping his new land, death on the rock, the most carnal sex scene I've read in years and 'I am the rain,' doubtlessly an inspiration to Ian Brown.

The only criticism is the lack of depth in the characters, who Steinbeck uses as a conduit for ideas rather than as intrinsically noteworthy.

Nonetheless it's one of the most eerily beautiful books I've read as well as one of the most challenging to my world view, in particular concerning man's realtionship with the earth that we all inhabit. 9/10
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 6 February 2001
This is a very dark and thought provoking novel. Four very different brothers take their families and move to farm very lush land, which has a history of droubt. When the dry times come and the land and cattle begin to perish, the family falls apart. Very deep and often quite creepy, this is not a book to read when you need cheering up as there is much death and despare involved. It is compelling reading and, as always, the charactors are brilliantly depicted. Not recomended for vegetarians!
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on 7 November 2015
This is very early Steinbeck. The style is less refined than his most familiar novels, but it is that very rawness that enhances the extent to which the novel utterly transports you. The setting is a founding ranch on virgin territory in early California. Steinbeck is famous for his depictions of the condition of American working man and their overseers. Here his characterization is just as charismatic, but instead of being wrapped in social commentary we are treated to an engagement of Nature, it's absolute beauty and unsparing harshness. For the period of reading you really are transported to the earthy, sensual freedom and toil of a valley ranch. Few novels outside travel writing engage the landscape itself as such a centrifugal figure in the narrative.

Steinbeck's appetite for social commentary is more nascent here and floats lightly around belief - both personal morality and to a lesser extent religious faith. At all points Steinbeck is representative rather than judgmental. The lives of the central characters are arduous yet free and each find their own purpose anchored differently to family, the land, their ranch work, the church with conflicts and resolutions abounding. The central figure is visceral in his beliefs, connected to The Land which he sees as imbued with soul (like an animist). His conflicts with his devout Christian brother are dealt with sympathetically to all sides.

But ultimately this can also be read simply as an absorbing tale of the foundation of the American West and a tribute to the eclectic (European) characters who first laid down the early habitations.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 31 December 2012
Having read most of Steinbeck's stuff, I have to say I didn't think this comparatively early work was anywhere near his best.

Most of the characters are two-dimensional and seem to symbolise ideas or attitudes of one kind or another, rather than being the subtle and contradictory human beings of his later works. I include the central character in this statement and have to say I found him oddly distant and unsympathetic throughout. Also a lot of the dialogue is irritatingly portentous and contrived (especially in the courtship passages) - in contrast to the terse naturalism of speech in many of his works. Not very much action, either, and some of the plot lines are not resolved in any kind of satisfactory way. Finally, the central theme here is paganism and nature-worship and the presentation of this becomes rather silly and far-fetched at times, and increasingly dominates towards the end.

I think what Steinbeck has attempted in this book he did much more successfully in East of Eden a few years on. Still four stars because I did enjoy it and would give nothing less to the greatest of American writers. I think he was still perfecting his art with this one, though.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 20 January 2013
I have read a lot of Steinbeck recently, and, although all his works are beautifully written, the language in To A God Unknown is just gorgeous. It is his most poetic work, with the characters themselves partaking in the language, and the visual description is awesome. Obviously, it's a great story line and characters, but the language really sets it apart.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 24 February 2014
This is my absolute favourite Steinbeck book. It is haunting and beautifully written. I highly recommend reading this, whether you are a Steinbeck fan or not.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 3 September 2015
Steinbeck thought writers should be heroes. He is. So good sometimes I find his sentences hard to believe. Life is made better by reading Steinbeck. If you don't choose this book make sure you get something else by him. He's worth the time and the money. Read him again and again.
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