John Steinbeck wrote many classic novels, and Of Mice and Men is widely considered to be among his best. The story of two country workers takes readers into another world and explores some powerful themes.
I definitely recommend this book, but the fact that it’s rather short doesn’t mean that young people should read it, as I’ll discuss later.
George Milton and Lennie Small are out in search of work, trying to find something to do out in California. They’ve just had a job, but had t0 run after Lennie touched a girl. He didn’t mean anything bad by it, it’s just that he’s not too smart.
No, Lennie isn’t smart at all, but he’s a big fella and a great worker. George is a smart guy, and he helps Lennie and looks after him. They’re always talking about how they’ll save enough money and one day they’ll have enough money and a nice ranch of their own instead of just working for other people.
They start a new job, and start saving up. There are some distractions, with the son of the ranch boss, Curley, just waiting to have a fight with Lennie because of how big and strong Lennie is. Eventually Curley picks a fight, swinging his fist toward Lennie, and all Lennie does is grab the guys’ hand and squeeze on to it, like he has a fixation of doing. That’s enough to seriously hurt Curley, and he’s not going to tell anyone because of how ashamed he is.
George also makes acquaintance with Slim, the leader of the workers. Everybody respects him a lot, and he often gives good advice over horseshoe games. A lot of people go to town on the weekend and blow all of their money, but George and Lennie are determined to save theirs. It isn’t long before Candy, an old ranch worker with only one hand, joins them in trying to get a ranch of their own.
For awhile it seems like they may actually save up the money and get their own ranch, but Curley’s wife is also making trouble. She loves to tease her husband by messing around, and she goes and speaks with the ranch workers, often making trouble for them.
She goes in on Lennie and starts stirring up a conservation. Lennie starts thinking her hair seems really nice and starts petting it. She tries to fight him, but he covers her mouth to make sure no one hears. When he releases his grip, she’s dead.
When George comes back, he realizes what’s happened and knows they’re going to try to kill Lennie. George finds him and tells him the story Lennie likes so much about how they got each other and they’re going to get themselves a ranch of their own. In that relaxed state, George kills him.
This is an excellent book. Steinbeck’s writing ability is quite well known, and in this story he takes us into the ranchers of the West. It’s interesting how the main characters are always dreaming of and planning to get a better life, and Lennie still believes he is about to get it at the end even though he’s really about to get killed. The symbolism is that throughout the novel the characters believe they are really going to get their own place, when no such thing is going to happen.
As for kids reading it, though, it’s hard to support that. Most kids today have absolutely no conception of the kind of world in this novel, and confusing young people with a book like this where multiple people are killed in a rather foreign setting does not really seem advisable.
I’d say that before introducing a kid to this book you should have them read some other books about ranch work and the West, so that they understand it, and wait with this one until they’re more mature and in their mid-to-late teens. If someone reads a book like this that has a kind of depressing theme and is not able to understand it, it can only be a negative.
Of Mice and Men is a great Steinbeck classic. Not for middle grade readers, but most others will greatly enjoy it.