Reviews by Nick Sweeney

Three novellas by Thomas Steinbeck:

Cabbages and Kings
Dr. Greenlaw and the Zulu Princess
Mrs. Penngelli and the Pirate

Post Hill Press - Omnibus, forthcoming 2014
ISBNs: 9781618689832, 9781618689849, 9781618689856

There's real history and real truth out there everywhere, but when it bumps heads with a whopping good yard that everybody enjoys, then the truth is sure to cross the line every last time.

from Cabbages and Kings

Thomas Steinbeck's recent collection of novellas and long tales serves as a reminder of the vastness a writer can explore while telling a story. These pieces exist in a world very close to our own, in a time we remember clearly, but all manage to tread along new paths. The three included in this omnibus, which are now available individually, take the reader along the coastlines of California in a time that many seasoned readers once knew.

It would be remiss to ignore a comparison to another, familiar writer of the Golden State. While he may not say it outright, Thomas Steinbeck seems to live in the same world that his father John lived in. He pays homage to those tales by continuing the tradition. John Steinbeck told concentrated and complete stories both in the technical and narrative sense, and thankfully, the tradition continues here. The above mentioned quote from Cabbages and Kings is clear evidence of this. The author is letting us know that the fabric of life and fiction can intertwine and blend seamlessly.

We are given glimpses of a life, much like that of the growth of the apple trees within the story, and we see how long it takes for men to become kings in their own right.

The second and the longest of the collection, Dr. Greenlaw and the Zulu Princess is a fine example of what a novella should strive to be. "Every man's dream is to sail the world," Thomas Steinbeck said in a recent interview, and that dream (which has made for a fairly common type of story), in its entirety of failure and success, is showcased within.

These pieces are familiar in very overt ways yet all manage to seem new. Although they have the feel of what a story should be and carry a typical "moral" at their center, all of the stories do so with distinct subtlety. They are meant to be enjoyed and Steinbeck tells these tales if we were children sitting around the campfire.

The final novella, "Mrs. Penngelli and the Pirate," is a simple yet efficient story about friendship and the lengths one goes to preserve it and the well-being of others. For Steinbeck fans, this will sound familiar but rest assured, old stories do learn new tricks. This is no exception. Mrs. Penngelli is a strong female character in a time where very few come up to the plate and Steinbeck carefully shows her ability to create and to make the best of what she was given. A friendship is tested and the strain is visible throughout the story; it's not about the actions outside but the waiting within. This is a return to good narrative.

It's not often to see a writer's ancestry like that of the Steinbeck family. Big shoes, one may call it, must be filled with a name like that. Growing up, I always enjoyed the old novellas, the stories of containment and vastness at the same time, the kind of storytelling that all kind of readers could enjoy. I, for one, am glad to see it return and I hope for a future of the same.