In the shadow of the cypress

From Catherine Given
author: Steinbeck, Thomas
In the shadow of the cypress
Thomas Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s eldest son, began his career as a cinematographer and a photojournalist in Vietnam. He has also written a number of screenplays.  His first novel, In the Shadow of the Cypress (2010) follows his first book, a collection of short stories entitled Down to a Soundless Sea (2002).

In the Shadow of the Cypress takes place around the turn of the 20th Century in Pacific Grove, California.  Here the lifestyle of a growing Chinese immigrant community in a coastal fishing village is juxtaposed against a quiet and overwhelmingly Caucasian seaside area. The story line centers on a marine biology professor’s investigation of the history and whereabouts of a priceless Chinese relic.  Steinbeck’s richly exotic tale is predicated on the intriguing theory that the Chinese were the first explorers to discover California’s coast.  In fact, some say the cypresses planted in groves along the cliffs are not indigenous to California, but rather, to China; they are said to have been planted by Chinese sailors when they first encountered certain areas of the coast. And according to Steinbeck, the Chinese have always considered these groves sacred.

Steinbeck masterfully conveys how unnerved the native Californians are by the foreign ways of these early 20th Century Chinese immigrants.  For example, the village’s Chinese laborers work themselves to the point of exhaustion building the nation’s new railroads.  They earn meager salaries, yet they live so resourcefully and frugally that many soon become prosperous. The Chinese fishermen dry their huge hauls of squid in the open air, thus creating disturbingly powerful odors that permeate the American residents’ neighborhoods on the outskirts of the village. Diligently obedient to their elders, the Chinese proudly preserve their culture’s traditions and participate in its hierarchical business systems.  Meanwhile, the Americans view the Chinese as self-reliant, ingenious, insular — and mystifying.

Steinbeck’s colorfully atmospheric tale draws the reader along, albeit slowly and at a bit of a distance due to “the professor’s recovered journal” format of the first half of the narrative. Lacking the immediacy of dialogue, Steinbeck’s chosen style of writing this half may detract from the story’s suspense for some readers.  Yet the characters’ dedication to chasing down answers despite their fear of retribution from the Chinese community elders may nevertheless make this story hard to forget.