- In Search of the Dark Watchers: Landscapes and Lore of Big Sur by Benjamin Brode
With field sketches and paintinngs by Benjamin Brode and field notes by Thomas Steinbeck
Steinbeck Press, 2014. 64 pp. $150.00 case-bound limited edition, $40.00 paper
Readers of John Steinbeck exploring the writings of his first son, Thomas (1944–2016), are sure to notice the geographic and stylistic legacies passed on from père to fils. Like his father, who chose Central California's Salinas Valley / Monterey as the backdrop for much of his fiction–including the iconic Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and East of Eden (1952)–Thom Steinbeck also populates his fiction with characters who spend either all or a good part of their time in this same region, although on occasion the younger author replaced the Salinas Valley as a focal point with a spot a bit farther south on the California Coast. As he pointed out in an interview published with his 2002 short story collection Down to a Soundless Sea,"All of the stories in the book concern people who once lived in the Big Sur" (loc. 3706). Later, Thom Steinbeck would return to the favored locale of his father in his 2010 novel, In the Shadow of the Cypress, which is centered around the search for valuable Asian artifacts purportedly hidden in the vicinity of Monterey Bay. Likewise, in The Silver Lotus (2011), Captain Jeremiah Hammond and his wife, Lady Yee, celebrate the success of their collaboratively built global shipping empire with the purchase of a "fifteen-acre property overlooking Monterey Bay" (64).
Stylistically speaking, critics have identified John Steinbeck as a realistic writer for decades, from, for example, Jane Benardete's 1972 observation of the author's "desire to adopt a natural, unsophisticated literary form and … remain as close as possible to … simple perceptions" (385), to Peter Hays's soon-to-be-published comment that the elder Steinbeck's work is "grounded … in realism." These same narrative attributes are omnipresent in the fiction of Thom Steinbeck, with its clear, direct, and unpretentious storytelling. With his final full-length work, In Search of the Dark Watchers: Landscapes and Lore of Big Sur (2014), Thomas Steinbeck ventures into nonfiction (as his father did on several occasions), retaining his familial ties to realistic writing and the California Central Coast, but adding elements of mysticism and folklore more often associated with John Steinbeck's earliest fiction. [End Page 104]
A "coffee-table book" available in both softbound and gift case-bound editions, In Search of the Dark Watchers first presents a brief history of the legendary "watchers" who roam the area near Big Sur. It then introduces the prospective quest of Thom Steinbeck's friend, Benjamin Brode, an artist from Santa Barbara, to find evidence of the existence of these "diminutive beings, … elusive hominids" that "make their home in the mountains, canyons, and wild coasts of the Big Sur in central California" (11). Steinbeck states that Native Americans indigenous to the area as well as Spanish explorers have attested to the presence of such Dark Watchers. He also speaks of his maternal grandmother's belief in their existence. In contrast to the pragmatic Olive Hamilton readers meet in East of Eden, a woman who "at eighteen was teaching [at a] school" where "there were pupils older and bigger than she was" and where she "had to practice a rudimentary medicine … to suck [a rattlesnake-bitten boy's] toe to draw the poison out" (148), her grandson relates that his "no-nonsense grandmother … not only swore she had seen the Dark Watchers on several occasions, but also claimed to have traded fruit, flowers, and walnuts with them ever now and then" (14–17). With his curiosity piqued by the lore of the Watchers, whose talents and rules of engagement are detailed in the text, the artist Brode ventures on his own to Big Sur, not "really going … to paint landscapes, in search of the Dark Watchers" (28).
The second half of the book provides a feast for the art...