Thomas Steinbeck's short story collection Down to a Soundless Sea won high praise from critics and readers everywhere. Now, he continues the family tradition of fascinating storytelling in his first full-length novel In the Shadow of the Cypress, which showcases his splendidly assured voice and exquisite eye for cultural detail. In 1906, Doctor Charles H Gilbert, a Stanford professor of marine biology discovers some ancient jade artefacts on California's Monterey Peninsula. The existence of these sacred stones, if authenticated, would indicate a very early Asian presence in the New World, an idea that conflicts with modern beliefs. When the Chinese fishing village where the artefacts were discovered is completely burned to the ground, there are many conflicting opinions about the proper fate of these artefacts. Eventually, a wealthy businessman agrees to pay for the stones to be transported back to China - but a tragic explosion on the boat occurs and the relics are lost at sea...until nearly a hundred years later when two young scholars join forces and attempt to locate the sunken treasure. With superb attention to cultural detail, Steinbeck brings to vivid light the Chinese immigrant experience at turn of the century California, juxtaposing complex ancient rituals against contemporary customs with the grace, passion and authority of a master.
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Thomas Steinbeck began his career in the 1960s as a combat photographer in Vietnam. Known best for his short stories, his collection Down to the Soundless Sea won critical praise. Along with his writing and producing obligations, Steinbeck is in demand as a public speaker where he lectures on American literature, creative writing, and the communication arts. He lives in California with his wife Gail.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
JOURNAL EXTRACTS OF
DR. CHARLES H. GILBERT
Stanford Professor of Marine Biology
“True wisdom comes at great cost.
Only ignorance is free.”
IN 1906, AT THE TIME these entries were written, Dr. Gilbert was a highly respected instructor and researcher at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California.
Dr. Charles Lucas
Department of Marine Studies
Partial diary entry: June 1, 1906
The raging China Point fire was an experience that must be forever etched in the memories of everyone who witnessed the tragedy, though I presently suspect there were those who perceived only profit in the flames. On the night of May 16, 1906, aided by predictably seasonal winds from the southwest, the fifty-year-old Chinese fishing village on China Point was completely burned to the ground in less than one hour. It was the most horrifying conflagration I have ever witnessed. My heart was wrenched with concern for the poor occupants of the village, and I feared the worst for the plight of those trapped in their shanties. The dwellings seemed to burst into flame like boxes of kitchen matches, but there was nothing anyone could do without suffering death for their efforts. By dawn the whole village was nothing more than a black, smoldering skeleton. It was only through the grace of a merciful God that no Chinese were killed in the racing inferno. But it is a certainty to all witnesses that they had lost most of what they once possessed, including some of their nets, sheds, and beached fishing boats.
The fire’s ignition point was most certainly a Chinese-owned hay barn at the south end of the village, and I’m persuaded the deed was initiated with the strong seasonal winds in mind. Though it disturbs me to say so, I am thoroughly convinced that the consequential inferno was the result of a determined and planned act of arson.
If armed with the perspective of hindsight, one can easily deduce that the following narrative has roots that stretch back more than sixty years, and perhaps more than several hundred years if the truth was known. The one person who might be said to have set the engine of destruction in motion is a strange fellow who I came to know in early June of 1898. The man’s name, appropriately enough, was William “Red Billy” O’Flynn.
By any definition, Mr. O’Flynn is a unique-looking individual. Roughly in his midforties, weathered and apparently used to hard labor, the man comes across as keen and observant, and considering his lack of formal education, he shows good sense in most all things. His novel appearance, despite his being born in Ireland and saddled with a brogue broad enough to occasionally make his speech almost incomprehensible, bespeaks a colorful parentage. He once volunteered that his mother’s people were of Moorish blood. “All thoroughgoing Gypsies to the bone,” he said, and “all armed to the teeth with endless batteries of the most chilling curses imaginable.” He had thus inherited his mother’s soft, dark complexion and black eyes, as well as a moderate knowledge of European Spanish, which our local Mexican population disdains for historical reasons.
Mr. O’Flynn’s father, according to his son’s recollection, was “a large and dangerous fellow with a ruddy, moon-pocked face, and hair as red-crested as God makes a peckerwood.” As a result, the young man also inherited a prodigious mane of copper-bright curls. And though he possesses marginally pleasant features, and a muscular physique tempered by hard labor, the abiding contrast between his dark Mediterranean complexion and his vivid red crown of hair is truly a most striking sight to behold. One never quite gets used to his appearance. Every time I came across him at his duties, it was like a novelty surprise all over again.
Only once did Mr. O’Flynn reveal a portion of his history to me, and to this day, knowing his verbal habits as I do, I can’t imagine what inspired him to do so. It was on the day that he first applied to me for part-time work at Hopkins Laboratory. I suppose that, as I was the prospective employer, he felt somehow compelled to reveal that he “first drew breath overlooking the tar-blackened docks of Cork.” His father was a brawling shipyard-pipe fitter, “built like a Birmingham brickbat, but lacking all the wit and modesty God gave a cobblestone.”
Mr. O’Flynn gave me to understand that when he was fourteen years old he escaped Ireland altogether. His father, he said, had long since matriculated well beyond his amateur standing as a tavern tippler, and had gone on to become a renowned professional whiskey drinker. This all-too-common situation, with its predisposition toward physical cruelty, evidently distressed the family sorely. At last Mr. O’Flynn’s long-suffering mother
felt she had endured more than enough. Circumstances obliged her to call forth her mortal quiver of Gypsy curses. Two days later, the senior O’Flynn was discovered facedown in a rain-filled gutter. The coroner formally declared that the notorious and unrepentant boozer had drowned in three inches of rainwater.
I record this here only in passing, because this tragic incident seems to have deeply influenced Mr. O’Flynn, for as far as I can deduce, he has always expressed a total aversion to alcohol. He impresses me as the driest Irishman I have ever encountered. He has for some years been confirmed to the Methodist faith and vehemently speaks against the use of spirits, as well as “all those misbegotten fools what do indulge.”
On the whole, I have always found Mr. O’Flynn a man of simple, if somewhat cautious, honesty. As far as I can discern, he has always spoken the truth, but only as much truth as warranted by the question. On most occasions his natural reticence induces him to say as little as possible, and with the greatest circumspection. Unlike most of his race, Mr. O’Flynn never indulges in idle conversation or even bemused observation. In fact, for an Irishman, he exhibits not the least vestige of Celtic humor. However, he is at all times a stable, capable, and dependable worker, whose efforts rarely if ever draw the slightest criticism from myself, or the laboratory staff.
When Mr. O’Flynn first applied to me for a job, he stated that he had worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad for twelve years. He said he had started as a gandy dancer and worked his way up to roadbed foreman with a crew of twenty men to supervise. Then one day a slowly passing engine accidentally ruptured a steam release valve on a piston feed line and badly scalded Mr. O’Flynn and four of his crew. Two of his Chinese workers later succumbed to their burns by way of infection, and O’Flynn almost died himself. Happily, he was pulled back from the brink through the careful ministrations of his hard-nosed Portuguese wife. She bartered housecleaning chores for burn creams and pain medications; these were compounded for her by Charles K. Tuttle’s Pharmacy and given to her at cost. When he later asked the Southern Pacific regional manager for compensation to cover the expense of his injuries, Mr. O’Flynn was given seventy-five dollars and told that he need not come back to work, as his position had been filled in his absence.
The Chinese victims of the accident received forty-five dollars each, and the families of the dead were given thirty-five dollars to help defray burial costs. These latter particulars concerning Mr. O’Flynn I eventually learned from Mr. Tuttle, but only after I’d already engaged Mr. O’Flynn on a part-time basis. Indeed, once I understood the man’s predicament, I found myself quite pleased to be of some small assistance in his financial restitution.
I soon discovered that Mr. O’Flynn kept himself adequately solvent by working six part-time jobs every week. On Mondays and Tuesdays he worked for the county on a road maintenance crew. On Wednesdays he came to us. He was taught how to properly clean fish tanks and assisted with all the equipment maintenance at the laboratory. Thursdays O’Flynn worked making deliveries for Tuttle’s Pharmacy, or carefully dusting the hundreds of large glass-stopped medicine bottles that lined all the walls. On Fridays he ran a steam-saw for Thomas Work’s wood yard. But Saturdays were O’Flynn’s special delight, for he alternated between carting and stocking at Steiner’s grocery store and working at Mr. Hay’s ice cream parlor. He cleaned the large copper kettles in the candy kitchen and redressed and oiled the stone taffy tables. A bemused Mr. Tuttle helped him find these additional jobs when he realized that Mr. O’Flynn was in possession of a sweet tooth the size of Seal Rock. The proprietors of both establishments proved very generous with free samples and token prices. His Sundays were just as regular. The mornings were spent worshipping at the First Methodist Church on Lighthouse Road. And, weather permitting, his Sunday afternoons were dedicated to fishing for the Sabbath table with his Portuguese father-in-law. In general, one would appraise all of Mr. O’Flynn’s habits as quite regular, sober, and disciplined. I must here record that these factors, like the man’s sobriety, are indisputable facts that should be taken into account for later consideration.
There was one additional curious facet to Mr. O’Flynn’s social intercourse within the local community. Though he seemed to possess few friends besides relatives acquired through marriage, he spent much of his free time in the company of his Chinese acquaintances. In particular, he was often seen associating with the well-to-do proprietor of a successful Chinese laundry in Pacific Grove. This rather popular fellow goes by the name of Master Ah Chung. O’Flynn has also been known to keep company w...
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