Some books stay with you, mark you with their words, score you with their emotion, and leave impressions in your soul like the rings in a tree.
Of Mice and Men was one such book. I was profoundly impacted when I read this book as a kid. Most of what I read was along the lines of King, Poe, Lovecraft and Tolkien. These books wove tales of death, friendship, struggle and sacrifice. Killing blows were dealt between protagonists and antagonists – something a kid didn’t have a problem wrapping his mind around.
But what Steinbeck did was a little different. THE killing blow was between best friends, and was done with compassion. It took me a while to understand the warring emotions in my head. I’m sure you have all read the book, but here’s a little background just in case.
George and Lennie, migrant field workers during the Great Depression, are best friends. George is an intelligent (albeit uneducated) man, and Lennie is a very large, strong man with mental disabilities. Lennie loves to touch soft things, mice, rabbits, puppies, etc., but usually ends up killing the animal unintentionally (which breaks the big guy’s heart).
George and Lennie have a dream. They want to own their own place and live off the fat of the land (Lennie only wants to be able to tend his own rabbits so he can touch them). At the end of the book (spoiler alert), a woman is unintentionally killed by Lennie. A lynch mob forms to kill Lennie. George and Lennie meet in a predetermined place to “get away”.
George is able to calm his friend down by telling him about their dream. Lennie, caught up in the dream of having a place with his best friend, isn’t aware of the lynch mob that is coming, and isn’t aware of the emotional hell that George is going through as he pulls out a gun.
Lennie dies as he looks ahead, dreaming of rabbits and freedom. George kills his dreams as he kills his best friend. The emotional tug-of-war at this part of the book is stunning.
There are a number of directions I could go with this. How can I write something that has a similar impact on my readers? Can I compose something so visceral that feelings created by my novel will reverberate around in the head of my readers for years to come? What are the keys to being able to pen such vivid pain?
I could also go a completely different route. Would I have shot Lennie? Putting aside all legal and moral implications of this scenario, did George do the right thing?
How to you grab your reader’s hand and make them feel what you want them to feel? Would you have shot Lennie?
I’ll let you take it from there.