Written by Jen Kellar
Three years ago, I decided enough time had passed, and I would do something entirely for myself. I was going to go after something I had wanted for five years. I yearned to join my friend’s Well-Read Mom group. It wasn’t an easy decision. I am a mom of many, and I have a keen awareness of time, a sensitivity toward being present to those around me, and the need to be intentional with my own time. Also, I become consumed when reading a book and usually dive so deeply beneath the surface that I barely come up for breath. So, it feels (dare I say it) selfish to read. Plus, free time is precious. But as we know, discerning when to do something or not do something comes with much thought and preparation.
My education is in English literature and psychology, so I immediately fell in love with the book choices that the ladies behind this group had made. The characters had depth and interest, some were quite self-reflective, and all the books brought with them something I couldn’t put my finger on. We read together through the ups and downs of each book, and I loved every minute! And then, our group began reading the John Steinbeck classic, East of Eden.
One of my oldest sons had given me his copy to read two years prior. He is a history and psychology major and has also given me other books to read. He said he was fascinated by East of Eden and thought I would love it too. Now, I admit that I am what some would consider a “speed reader”. This ability has its downside, as I typically leave with a mere impression of a book. Thus, the story does not always remain in its fullness in my memory. I read East of Eden cover-to-cover while sitting under a tree with a glass of iced coffee during a few days of the hot summer as I watched my girls playing in the pool. And then, the book came up in discussion. “Has anyone read this book?” asked my friend who leads our group. I quickly blurted out that I had. Then she asked for a summary from my perspective, as she had started it and thought it was awful! My mind went blank—what was the story? All I had left was an impression, but it was positive. What made a book that my friend thought was awful something that left me with the idea that people should ultimately read it? How could my judgment be so off?
That conversation immediately took me back to another Well-Read Mom book discussion I had about Crime and Punishment, a book we read a few years back. Another friend, who had several good reasons not to read the book, encouraged me to do so. I remember we were taking a walk around and around her backyard through the beginning of the spring season. Everything was blossoming for the first time. I had mentioned that I got through the crime, but I did not want to know the punishment. It seemed so dreary. And in her wisdom, she just said, “Well, it must’ve been chosen for a reason. We have to forge on through challenges because we don’t know what the end will be. Don’t give up!” I did end up finishing that book, and I was glad about it. I learned something. I grew. It felt good to read it through and talk about it with others because it would not be something I could ever pick up on my own and finish. I wouldn’t have the stomach or the heart for it alone.
So this moment with Crime and Punishment and my friend’s encouragement leaped into my mind as I tried to figure out what to say about East of Eden. And I just responded as my friend had, “Keep going. It will make sense at the end.” Incidentally, my words were not as encouraging as my other friend’s words were to me, and as far as I know, the book has not been finished. That is her choice, and I respect that. But many books have been chosen that have produced similar immediate, visceral, adverse reactions in other women in the group. I have not shared these reactions for most books, yet I am fascinated by WHY a book was chosen. The characters themselves speak to me, their circumstances jump out at me, and I can see something relatable in their lives to mine, even in the darkest characters like Rodion Raskolnikov (I had to look that up, by the way)! The other ladies’ questions about why the book was chosen aroused a question in me, too: Why am I not disturbed by disturbed characters? Why do I honestly find them fascinating? Is this a personal problem? Or maybe because I have lived a life with dark and ugly scars that are rarely brought out into the open, I can somehow relate to others who have sins that seem unforgivable. Maybe I like strange stories with realism, and it’s a personal taste.
And then, I waited for the discussion and wondered if I should reveal that I liked the book against the better judgment of the group leader and everyone else. It speaks to a more profound question of honesty, truth, and the acknowledgment that one opinion is not better or worse than another, just different. And we grow. And we learn. And we challenge ourselves to figure out how to communicate our differences, understand one another, and grow closer as friends. I am grateful.
So back to East of Eden. Reading it a second time, which I again consumed in about two weeks of being sick over Christmas break, was novel. I rarely read a book twice. This time, the characters, themes, and everything about it stuck in my mind more completely. And because I finished the book in December, and it’s a book for January and February, that left me with free time. So I did something I hadn’t done in probably 15 years. That is, I borrowed a book off the shelves of the (gasp!) library. Just bringing my kids into the library and watching them pick random books off the shelves is a form of debilitation because I take literature seriously! What’s this? A book about a dog whose name is Daisy? What is in that book? What lesson will the author be trying to teach? Shouldn’t I read that book before my daughter does? When would I have time for that? Ah!! But yes, I pulled a book that looked interesting off the shelf. It was called The Kept. This book seemed interesting as it was about a mother and her son bonding over a family tragedy. What could go wrong?
I read that book in a day. It was depressing from beginning to end, and with no break or hope for something otherwise in the middle of it. Upon finishing it, I came to a fresh thought about what makes a classic. and I again was grateful for the women behind Well-Read Mom and the choices they make for us. I don’t want to make my own book choices because of the lack of depth I found unsatisfying in The Kept. It hit none of my values—using my time wisely, growing, intentionally learning something new, and growing in friendship with others. Not much, except it made me realize that reading East of Eden with my friends (even if they do not like the book or choose to read it in its entirety) helps me in countless ways.
I can see the parallels between the Bible and the story in East of Eden. I see Steinbeck using realism and the horror of life circumstances to help us understand what it means to have a gaping hole in your heart that can only be filled with grace. I can see how complex relationships are between siblings, the patterns of comparison, and the striving to gain the attention of your parents not singularly held by Adam and Charles or Aron and Caleb. Their striving and discouragement, getting up and trying again, and fighting with one another stands out to me because I see it in my own life, in my relationship with my brother and father. I understand this story is a classic because it means something to me and others. There are themes here that you cannot deny. What about the question of Cathy; is she making choices, or was she just born evil without a conscience? Is this how it is for people with mental disorders? Do they even have a choice of how to act? What about the question of marriage; what makes a good marriage? How does someone like Sam Hamilton fit into the whole picture? What can be said about his marriage to Liza, who seems like his opposite but somehow work? How is it that Sam is the wealthiest person in this book, but everyone around him has more money? SO MUCH to talk about and so much to contemplate!
Meanwhile, what did I learn from The Kept? No offense to the author, but it just made me depressed and without hope. Also, I did not have any questions when I finished it. My friend said it is twaddle (another word I had to look up). It means something trivial or foolish in speech or writing. What makes East of Eden different from The Kept? To me, there is a world of difference. From beginning to end, The Kept presented a story of death, misery, and evil in the world gone wrong because there was no faith, joy, or compassion. The book was filled with evil, evil, and more evil—until they all die. What makes East of Eden jump out is that, while there is likewise a lot of death, misery, and corruption in the story, it holds out one thing similar to all the books in Well-Read Mom: Hope.
Why hope? Because John Steinbeck did not just write a novel about death, misery, and evil. He wrote it specifically in the context of the Bible story, of humanity’s story of suffering and making sense of life and relationships. For goodness sake, he titled it East of Eden! The title is essential because it points to the fact that our world is NOT Eden; it is not grace-filled when we turn our backs on God. It can be dark and ugly, but at the same time, there are bright lights in it. If the title doesn’t get you, he patterns the brotherly relationship not once but twice in the book on the story of Cain and Abel. We see the same things repeatedly happening between the brothers and the father, giving us pause. What about this story is true for me in my own life?
What did I learn from East of Eden? I learned the story has something more for me than just another tale pulled from the library shelf. It is a classic for a reason. It makes you think, self-reflect, and wonder about the world. What would our unified yet individual worlds be like without the grace of God? When have I lived without His grace, and what decisions did I make because of that back turning? What would my life be like without God? What choices have I made or will I make today toward or away from God?
And most importantly, East of Eden presents us with the notion that we have a CHOICE in our lives. We get to decide for ourselves. And that is a straight-up reflection of God. Who else gives us true freedom to love or reject with no expectations but our Creator?
East of Eden, like all the books chosen by this apostolate, is a classic because it makes you think, wonder, and question; it leaves you with a lasting impression. I realized that I am grateful that the books are chosen for us and that I “trust the system” (which is what I usually say when someone is wondering about a book choice). I am glad that the books chosen bring hope because, in this world, it is rare to find entertainment that brings hope. I do not mean to say that each book is for everyone. We are all called to discern if a book will benefit us. But each time I forge ahead, like with Crime and Punishment and East of Eden, I see that finishing the book is rewarding, the discussion engages my entire mind, and I am a better person. That itself is worth my time.
About Well-Read Mom
In Well-Read Mom, women read more and read well. Our hope is to deepen the awareness of meaning hidden in each woman’s daily life, elevate the cultural conversation, and revitalize reading literature from books. If you would like to have us help you select worthy reading material, we invite you to join and read along with us. We are better together! For information on how to start or join a Well-Read Mom group visit our website wellreadmom.com