Steinbeck takes a Mexican folk tale, one which features so many classic elements of a folk tale, and turns it into a story of class and racism, mixed with a little bit of adventure.
The tale Steinbeck adapted for this story is a classic folk tale of the problems of greed and envy. A poor native finds the greatest pearl anyone has ever seen and all it brings is misery. Stories like this are common in most cultures, if not all. The appeal of these stories is fairly obvious: money doesn’t just fail to buy you happiness, but it can bring you misery. Of course, this is not true; money can make you a lot more comfortable, though it may not make you happy. But the appeal is broad and, likely, back when you could not move from your social station, such stories made much more sense.
Steinbeck takes this story and turns it into a story of the corruption of the Spanish ruling class in Mexico, and how they treated the natives. The Spanish characters in this novella – who are not fleshed out in any way – are corrupt and out to rob the natives of everything they can get. I highly doubt Steinbeck exaggerates this much.
Once Kino and family flee, the novella picks up pace and, for a time, becomes almost an adventure story. For me, this is the highlight of the novel, when the obvious, heavy-handed social commentary gives way to an exciting chase through the mountains of Baja California.
I did have a hard time getting my mind around how the baby gets shot. For some reason, Steinbeck’s description of this area did not make it seem as though the baby was in aim of the rifle, and so I was confused when the baby got shot.
But it’s hard to fault this whole thing too much. Sure, it’s heavy-handed in its meaning, but not too many white males were writing from the perspective of the oppressed natives back then, and tragedies like this help members of the oppressing classes come to understand what they are doing. And I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the chase part of the novella, at least until the baby gets shot.
7?/10 given the time he wrote it in