Down to a Soundless Seaby Thomas Steinbeck
Here is an unprecedented fiction debut that is cause for celebration. Growing up in a family that valued the art of storytelling and the power of oral history, Thomas Steinbeck now follows in his father’s footsteps with a brilliant story collection. Down to a Soundless Sea resonates with the rich history and culture of California, recalling vivid details of life in Monterey County from the turn of the century through the 1930s. Steinbeck accomplishes an amazing feat: his stories have the feel of classic literature, but his haunting voice, forceful narrative drive, and dazzling imagery are unmistakably his own.
In seven stories, Steinbeck traces the fates and dreams of an eccentric cast of characters, from sailors and ranchers, to doctors and immigrants—as each struggles to carve out a living in the often inhospitable environment of rocky cliffs, crashing surf, and rough patches of land along the California coast and the Big Sur. In “Blind Luck,” a wayward orphan finds his calling at sea, only to learn that life must concede to the whims of authority and the ravages of nature. In “Dark Watcher,” with the country at the start of the Great Depression, a professor craves a plausible discovery to boost his academic standing—and encounters the Indian myth of a shadowed horsemen that may ruin his career. “An Unbecoming Grace” tracks the route of a country physician who cares for an ill-tempered cur—but feels more concern for the well-being of the patient’s beleaguered young wife. The collection concludes with “Sing Fat and the Imperial Duchess of Woo,” a novella that follows the tragic love story between a young apothecary and the woman he hopes to marry.
Deeply felt and richly imagined, full of compelling drama and historical authenticity, Down to a Soundless Sea heralds the arrival of a bold new voice in fiction. Thomas Steinbeck has written stories as memorable and rugged as the coastline that inspired them.
From the Hardcover edition.
“These tough, unsparing stories are written as if they were lived, not imagined, by their author. Thomas Steinbeck has found his own voice and he exults in the sound of it. This is authentic, honest American writing. The kind of writing a father would be proud of.”
“Thomas Steinbeck’s stories breathe vivid new life into nineteenth-century California, and bring to mind the pleasures of such writers as Hamlin Garland, Jack London, and Stephen Crane. This is a splendidly assured and convincing debut.”
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Read an Excerpt
The Night Guide
Eighteen fifty-nine was the devil’s own year for gales along the Sur coast, but their raucous zenith was registered near the end of April. Crashing up from the south-southwest with piratical ferocity, the cycle of gales unburdened enough water to send the Little and Big Sur Rivers four to six feet over their banks. The runoff from Pico Blanco alone kept the Little Sur at near flood for two weeks.
Sadly, every mortal creature that made the rugged coast a refuge suffered from the shattering blows of an outraged sea. Cresting rollers twenty feet high and two miles long mined into the impenetrable cliffs and rocks for days on end. Inevitably, every rookery, bower, haul-out, and nesting sight on the Monterey coast was swept away. The corpses of every known species of coastal life littered what shore there was left. The sharks enjoyed abundance for days after each gale.
The evidence of destruction was to be had from all quarters. Salmon Creek to Santa Cruz reported roads, byways, and trails strangled in mazes of uprooted and shattered trees. The prodigious rains, sometimes so heavy and horizontal that simple breathing became hazardous, drilled the soil so incessantly that broad landslides were abruptly carved from the mountainsides. Several large rockslides unalterably isolated the more remote mining claims.
It was during a blessed lull between the repetitive coastal tempests that Boy Bill Post moved his wife from Monterey to a newly purchased piece of land bordering Soberanes Creek. His land formed a part of the old San Jose y Sur Chiquito land grant, and he had fixed it in his mind that his acres would be prime for cattle. There appeared to be abundant grazing in the hills and pastures, and the splendid ocean views gave him constant pleasure.
Serious anxiety regarding the recent inclination of weather set Boy Bill Post to hurriedly construct a cabin to shelter his new family. This urgency was magnified by the impending birth of the Posts’ first child.
Boy Bill Post had married a handsome Rumsen Indian girl. Her name was Anselma Onesimo and her people had lived along Carmel Valley and its bountiful river for centuries. According to Anselma, her tribe had sprung from beneath the earth on the day of creation. The Rumsen people considered the Sur Mountains as spiritual ground and spoke of Mount Pico Blanco as the navel of the world.
The constraints of time were suddenly made more per-tinent by the return of the southern gales. Bill’s plans for their cabin were instantly altered to accommodate present needs and it quickly became a slant-roofed, one-room hut near Soberanes Creek. This proved not to be the most favorable of locations.
The expectant father desperately hand split cedar shakes by the hour without recourse to food or rest. Anselma’s lying-in time was uncomfortably close at hand, and Boy Bill Post desperately raced his hammer against the lightning-rent tempest that momentarily threatened to descend upon their heads.
Anselma’s cries from within the rude shelter informed Bill Post that his firstborn and the gale might possibly arrive simultaneously. Then a sudden explosive crash of thunder heralded the initial, pelting pebbles of rain. It also proclaimed the welcome cries of his first child.
Post managed to secure the last few cedar shakes to the roof just in time to greet Charles Francis Post. Bill’s gift to his burgeoning family was a tight shelter and dry stores. Not much in the way of a defense against the wrath of God perhaps, but better than canvas and poles in those wilds.
March 1, 1859, the day the majestic gales attended the birth, also marked the sad loss of four sound ships. To seal the bargain, the coast of Monterey was sorrowfully altered by rock-grinding waves and carnivorous tides. There were other unique signs accompanying the birth, according to the mother, but it wasn’t for some time that anyone realized that young Frank was also the first child born in the high Sur under the American flag.
In any event, the child’s nativity was accredited as genuinely auspicious, and it was noted by family members that unusual events occurred on the anniversary of that particular date every year.
By the first of June that same year, Bill Post had built his new family a credible home higher up on the banks of the Soberanes, and he had begun to move on a few head of livestock to see how they fared before establishing a larger herd.
Bill Post had grown into a man of relatively broad experience. He was the son of a successfully retired sea captain from New London, Connecticut, and the family counted itself honored to have had ancestors aboard the Mayflower. A typical Yankee, both innovative and practical, Bill always felt equal to any task he set for himself.
In 1858 Bill Post had had the good sense to marry Anselma, and though he appraised his life as rich in experience, nothing had quite prepared him for fatherhood. He found himself looking for direct reflections of his own instincts and manner in the person of the child. This seemed only natural to Anselma, though Bill’s observations took on an unsettling character the more he studied the matter. Baby Charles Francis Post seemed remarkably self-absorbed and uncommonly introspective for an infant.
Anselma quietly insisted there was absolutely no reason for concern. It was the child’s Rumsen Indian blood at play. Indian babies were rarely clamorous unless soiled or left without proper attention. Indeed, Anselma exhibited great interest in her child’s reflective temperament. She said it was a sign of great insight. This did little to assuage his father’s concern, however, and Bill continued focusing closely on his firstborn for signs of some subtle indisposition.
Bill never ascertained anything beyond his own overanxious concerns, for Frank bloomed quite normally, though he remained quiet when he had nothing of importance to say. The child retained information easily and brought a fixed and patient concentration to every new experience. By the time the boy was three, Bill Post was forced to accept Anselma’s elementary appraisal of the situation. Little Frank assuredly perceived and understood more than most tykes his age, but he kept his insights to himself, as did all his mother’s people.
Little Frank loved to trail behind his mother as she drifted off into the barrens or high passes on one of her herb and medicine-gathering expeditions. Sometimes they would come across other parties of foraging Rumsen and happily move along together for a day or two exchanging news, gathering pine nuts and birds’ eggs, and hunting small game when the opportunity presented itself.
This singular practice made Bill Post extremely uncomfortable from the outset, and he voiced innumerable objections to the custom. But if he thought for a moment he might discourage his wife’s basic Indian compacts and traditions, he was pitifully mistaken. Anselma considered foraging as an important part of an ancient and magic family responsibility. The very process required vast knowledge and humble reverence, and Heaven help anyone who interfered.
After a while Bill came to see that thorny point for himself and, with his usual Yankee practicality, let Anselma do as she pleased. He just got used to it, as he was meant to. He also became acclimated to little Frank, who sometimes looked at his father as though they had met somewhere else, in another time–a very disconcerting air when adopted by a child.
Bill also became accustomed to his son’s long, ruminative pauses when asked a question. Little Frank seemed to ponder every inquiry seriously, regardless of magnitude. He always answered with disarming simplicity and truthfulness. These were not qualities Bill Post necessarily wanted his son to disavow in favor of thoughtless social spontaneity, so he adopted a circumspect manner when conversing with the child on any important subject.
From little Frank’s perspective the whole world made sense. A moment’s balanced reflection always served to place every reality on an even plane. The truth always made itself brightly evident to him. Even awash in a sea of distortion, the truth was easily defined and understood. His reluctance to speak about all he knew was bred in the bone, as his mother had always contended. The fixed symmetry evident in all things, spiritual and physical, was perfectly resolved to little Frank’s way of thinking.
It was with his mother that Frank shared the greatest and most diverse of dialogues. Oddly, much of it was nonverbal and needed little in the way of physical inflection to disclose infinite subtleties. The boy fairly exercised himself in all the languages at hand without showing much preference for any one in particular. English, Spanish, and Rumsen phrases were all the same to little Frank. He would happily express himself using elements of all three languages simultaneously.
Though he found it peculiar, it never disturbed the child when his father failed to hear or discern the more enchanted particulars that always appeared so obvious to the boy, but he possessed a native discretion and never discussed that part of his world with anyone but his mother and then only in their own special dialects. There could be little doubt of Frank’s Indian inheritance, but this was not to say that Bill Post had not left his mark. The child displayed evident qualities of ingenuity, endurance, and courage typical of a Connecticut Yankee. The boy even possessed the amiable aspect and rolling gait of a Grand Banks seaman as irrefutable proof of his father’s bloodline.
Little Frank also shared his father’s passion for birds and the broad vistas of the Pacific. Father and son spent many evenings watching the sunset beyond the opalescent horizon while the gulls wheeled and called overhead. Bill would try to explain what lay beyond the oceans, but his son focused only on what could be seen. It would have been all the same to the boy if nothing whatsoever lay over the horizon. He loved the beauty of the sea for its own sake and asked nothing more of it.
Bill noticed that prolonged contemplation of the bright ocean panoramas occasionally made his son almost giddy. It was then that little Frank would talk mysteriously of the Ancients who had once lived in these mountains, the humans who had stared out over those same bright waters before time was recorded. Bill Post often found his son’s manner of expression curious; the object of the boy’s focus was so unlike that of other children his age.
If Bill Post ever required valid proof of his son’s native predispositions, it materialized on a dangerous night in mid-March. It was a night rent with contrary gales, hazardous winds, and lightning that owned the skies for minutes on end. It was a night not unlike that of Frank’s birth, with its attendant natal pyrotechnics. The boy was a hardened veteran of tempests of equal ferocity since that auspicious night, but storms inspired curiosity rather than fear in the child. Indeed, little Frank rather enjoyed a really spirited southwester. He would ask his father to take him to watch the monstrous seas cleave themselves against the great rocks of the coast.
On this particular night, little Frank took no joy in the storms, nor in the safety and warmth afforded by his soft bed and downy quilt. His mother had departed on one of her usual hunting expeditions into the mountains three days earlier. She had promised to return before the weather broke. Frank’s father had heartily regretted letting Anselma continue with her usual native routines because she was carrying another child. He felt uneasy about the effects her strenuous endeavors and the wilderness might have on mother and unborn child alike.
At any other time little Frank would have thought nothing of his mother’s departure except to feel slightly neglected because he could not accompany her. He had come down with a slight cold, and his father had insisted that the boy stay at home until the symptoms subsided.
The shattering tempest grew in intensity, and it was about midnight when Frank heard his father rise, dress, and depart to check the barn and the frightened stock. It was then that a feeling of apprehension and barren anxiety settled on the boy’s soul like a wet hide. It made him shiver. Something was wrong, and little Frank was at a loss to know why he felt so distraught. Sitting up, he looked out the rain-streaked window. In the distance, he could see the light of his father’s storm lantern moving about inside the barn, so he knew that his father was fine. But he worried sorrowfully about his mother. He was almost sick wondering where she was on such a raging night. The boy closed his eyes tight to drive away the unwelcome images, but he became aware of an even stronger light trying to edge its way past his closed lids to gain his attention.
At first the child thought it was his father’s lantern, but when he opened his eyes he realized the light came from a different source altogether. This light shimmered in the corner of his room, shimmered with a gentle luminescence unlike anything the child had ever seen before. He had noticed the wakes of passing ships glow with the same quality in the moonlight, and this pale glow, akin to the water’s strange radiance, shed little of itself on the immediate surroundings.
The glow took the form of a tapered pillar at first, but when his eyes became accustomed to the subtle and wonderful color variations emanating from the luminescence, he became convinced that the light was a who and not a what. This realization infused him with a warmth and confidence that seemed totally natural and admissible. It was as if he had always known about this phenomenon even though he had never experienced it before.
The glowing pillar moved slowly toward the door to Frank’s room, and there it waited shimmering with green, blue, and violet pulses of brilliance. The boy nodded with instant comprehension, jumped from his cot, and quickly dressed. A lightning flash suddenly raced across the sky. The crash of its thunder followed almost immediately. Alert to the storm once more, the boy pulled on his boots. Little Frank was not fond of wearing shoes of any description. He was happiest with the soft dirt between his toes, but he obeyed the thought as it came to him.
The glowing pillar floated through the cabin to the front door and waited. Grabbing his jacket and rabbit-skin cap, Frank followed the light out into the storm. There was no sign of his father anywhere, so the boy followed the radiance without further pause. The brilliance guided the boy precisely over well-used paths through the eastern pastures until it reached the mountain. There the guide waited for the boy before slowly ascending a craggy trail that led to the high ridges. Frank had followed his mother over many of those same paths gathering medicinal plants.
As the boy began to climb the trail, the storm, which had been furious for the past six hours, turned dangerous in the extreme. Lightning fingered across the sky in every direction at once. The explosions of thunder made the earth tremble beneath the child’s feet, and the rain pelted down like hail to the point of pain. Faithfully, the illumination never distorted or wavered from the path, so Frank followed without fear. The winds rose to the tenor of plaintive screams, so that every limb and leaf, every blade and bush was helplessly torn and wrenched in obedience to its whims.
As he climbed, Frank witnessed ancient trees cleaved down the center by the stress of contrary winds first raging from the west and then rounding the compass. Sometimes the gusts appeared to sweep from all directions at once. Downed tree limbs and torn vegetation became more dense the higher he climbed, but still the glowing guide remained constant and reassuring, never deviating a degree from the center of the trail, never disordered by wind or the cutting sheets of rain.
Near the top of the track a shallow dale gave spartan shelter to a grove of ancient and distorted oaks. Little Frank struggled over the rise and, clutching his collar against the rain, watched as the light moved to the center of the grove and then stopped. As the boy followed, he noticed a slight alteration in its quality. Changing from the cooler, calming colors, the light now became resplendent with bright streaks of yellow and gold. Vibrant flashes of crimson amplified the sense of urgency. Then, within the briefest moment, the guide flared brilliantly and was gone, leaving only its ghost image imprinted on the boy’s eyes. Little Frank waited a few seconds for his vision to clear and then walked to the spot in the grove where the flickering pillar had last stood. Bursts of lightning conveniently illuminated his way so that the path was well defined.
At the bottom of the path little Frank spotted a fallen tree, its great mass of roots exposed and waiting for death. Another flash of lightning and the boy sighted something else: a figure pinned under a lattice of heavy limbs and branches. The boy instantly recognized his mother reaching out and calmly calling his name.
Frank ran to her, gripped her hand, and began sputtering questions in their special dialect. Anselma quieted her son and said that she was unhurt, just trapped. The large limb lying across her back would have to be raised for her to slide free under her own power. The limb was sixteen inches broad and with the attendant branches, a considerable mass of wood for anyone to move.
Without thinking further, the boy attempted to raise the limb, but his little arms were no match for its girth. Then he remembered watching his father clear tree stumps from the pasture. He looked about until he found a stout broken limb. He wedged the hefty bough under the offending limb in such a manner that, should he have the strength to push the branch up over his head a short ways, his mother might pull herself free. But the weight of the limb precluded a four-year-old boy from doing anything of the kind.
A standard contention of the ages asserts that the bonds between mother and child may easily accommodate the insuperable. So, lacking all sense of the improbability of the task at hand, little Frank pushed up on his makeshift lever and moved forward.
He managed to push the branch up over his head. He repeated the exercise twice more, and before he knew it his mother was standing by his side saying that it was safe to release the limb.
The boy let go and smiled up at his mother. Anselma knelt to see to her son. They were both soaked to the bone, but once satisfied that her child was not injured in any way, Anselma shouldered her bag and shepherded Frank down the steep trail by the incessant flashes of blue-white lightning.
When they at last neared the house, Anselma saw her husband’s storm lantern approaching from the direction of the road. Bill Post ran forward, gathered his little family in his arms for a moment, and then quickly ushered them toward the safety of the house. The relief in his eyes almost came to tears. Back under shelter, Bill quickly stoked the fire and went to fetch fresh towels from the cupboard. While Anselma saw to dry garments, Bill retrieved a bucket of rainwater from the overflowing butts on the porch. He hung a small cauldron from its iron hook over the fire and set the water to heat so Anselma might bathe the child and prevent further chill.
Bill Post at last spoke of his anxiety. When he returned to the house and found the front door wide open and little Frank gone, he had not known where to look. He had searched for two hours without a sign. Happily, Bill observed that his wife and child seemed hardly fazed by their wild adventure. So while he fed them honey and warm bread, he asked them to recount what had happened. There was never a note of reproach or recrimination in his voice. Bill Post was far too happy to have his loved ones safe at home for gratuitous displays of troubled indignation.
True to her pure Rumsen nature, Anselma leaned toward the taciturn. Her speech was known for its veracity and brevity, and Bill did not live in hope of a colorful or detailed explanation. She spoke of coming down the trail when a great wind tore a tree from the earth and trapped her beneath its branches. Then her son found her and helped her escape by shifting the biggest limb. There was nothing more to say for the moment.
Bill shook his head and looked to his son, though he entertained little hope of much help in that direction. Even before his father spoke, Frank piped up with his mixed patois of English, Spanish, and Rumsen. It always took a moment to coax Frank to pick one language and stick with it. The boy told his father that he had been in bed when his mother’s spirit had come for him in a light. She had led him up the mountain to move the tree so she could come home. Frank said his meager piece with an air of all-inclusive acceptance, as though this kind of experience was an everyday occurrence. Again Bill shook his head, but he was patient enough to realize that it might take days to secure all the details of the story.
As Anselma tucked her child under his goose-down quilt that night, the boy looked at his mother and asked whether he could someday learn to call her with the light when he was in trouble. Anselma looked at her son, caressed his face, and told him that the light was not something one learned how to do. Love made it happen. Little Frank smiled, blinked once or twice, and fell asleep, content with the answer.
The next day, after the storms had passed well east, Bill Post rode out with the Ortiz brothers to survey the general damage and do what they could to clear the trails. Bill eventually had to rig two mules with a wagon harness to help move the heavier debris.
Later that day and only out of curiosity, Bill and his men rode up the ridge trail to inspect the site his wife and son had spoken of. It was just as they had said, possibly worse to Bill’s way of thinking. The local damage was extensive due to the erratic winds.
That evening over supper Bill asked Anselma about the boy lifting the tree to let her escape. Could she by any chance have been mistaken? Could the tree not have moved in the wind? Anselma looked at her husband coolly and shook her head.
Bill continued in a rather abashed manner. With just a tinge of a blush, Bill said he had asked only because it had required the labor of two sturdy mules and a horse just to haul the offending snag a few feet off the trail.
Anselma smiled, shrugged, stroked her husband reassuringly on the forearm, and kissed away the small tears of relief that scrolled down his cheeks.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Thomas Steinbeck began his career in the 1960s as a motion picture cinematographer and photojournalist in Vietnam. Interspersed with his writing, speaking and producing obligations, Mr. Steinbeck has taught college-level courses in American Literature, creative writing, and communication arts. He serves on the board of directors of the Stella Adler Theatre Los Angeles and the National Steinbeck Center. He has written numerous original screenplays and documentaries as well as adaptations of his father’s work. Thomas Steinbeck lives on the central coast of California with his wife. He is currently at work on his first novel.
From the Hardcover edition.
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I loved this book! It's the kind you savor, and that's easy to do for each short story. It's like hearing a tribe of early California settlers/storytellers share their personal tales, and seeing the land through their eyes. If you've spent any time in big sur, and felt it's mystical nature, you will love it. Or, it'll inspire you to see the place for yourself.
This book, which is a collection of short stories that the author has collected or researched over the years, is a promising start. It's hard not to look at Thomas Steinbeck's writing and not think about his illustrious father, John, but Thomas does seem to have a knack for writing too, however rough around the edges it is. There are seven stories in here set between the 1850's and 1930's in the Salinas and Monterey area. My two favorite stories in here are "An Unbecoming Grace," which follows the travels of a local doctor and how his rescuing of a runaway cowboy affects a big change on a local ranch, and "Sing Fat and the Imperial Duchess of Woo," which tells of a former Chinese royal son and his story of love and loss in the Monterey area. The rule of thumb when it comes to these stories is that the longer it is, the better it is. The shorter ones are definitely not as good as the longer ones, but no less interesting. One thing Thomas needs to work on though is smoothing out some of the wordings and transitions a little. Often he uses the "something something something WHEN SUDDENLY..." line, which feels kind of jerky and could have been served better with a new paragraph or the beginning of new section for the story. He accomplishes that in the last story, "Sing Fat," which makes me think this is just a practice run for Thomas' future writing career. And judging by how enjoyable this collection was, I foresee a bright future for John's son.
Thomas Steinbeck's collection of short stories from the Big Sur area during the early 1900s, is written in a lyrical, rhythmic style that is poetic in nature. Each story is carefully crafted to engage the reader and delight the senses. In the last and longest story in the collection, "Sing Fat and the Imperial Duchess of Woo," Steinbeck draws the reader in with his rich and luscious descriptions. In one scene where the protagonist's bethrothed brings in a meal, Steinbeck reveals his obvious love of food..."[she] returned with wine-steamed prawns and grilled rock pigeons with a red-pepper-and-honey glaze. Last served was a young sea bass beautifully crosshatched and deep-fried in a ginger-scented oil and brought to the table leaping from a pond of broth and steamed vegetables arranged to emphasize composition." His language is spare and evocative. This reader was left salivating and heading off to the kitchen for a snack. The classic tone of the writing lulls the reader into a sense of being taken back into an imaginary time, but in a clever turn by the author, we are reminded that these are true stories, and, in the case of "Sing Fat and the Imperial Duchess of Woo" this creates a more heightened tragedy. I highly recommend this book to all who enjoy a good yarn delivered by a gifted storyteller.