John Steinbeck's The Red Pony—which some critics believe represents one of Steinbeck's best works—is divided into four separate sections, unlike standard chapters. The sections are held together by common characters, location, and themes, and they follow a similar time line, but the continuation of story line is not as smooth as the transition between normal chapters of a novel. They all follow the trials of Jody Tiflin, however, as he progresses through the rites of passage from young boy to young man.
It is through the red pony, which Jody receives as a gift from his father, that he learns about death. This is a painful experience for a shy young boy who is so proud of his pony that he invites friends home from school just to look at the small horse. Likewise, it is through other animals that populate this book that Jody also learns about sex, old age, sickness, and birth. He is gently guided through his journey from boy to man with the help of a ranch hand named Billy Buck, who is reputed to know more about horses than any man around. However, even Billy cannot defy nature and must learn that he cannot make promises that he cannot keep. Through Billy and Jody's mother, Jody learns compassion and understanding. Jody's father is not as open to other people, but Steinbeck takes care not to depict Jody's father as a villain. Steinbeck treats all his characters fairly and fleshes out their personalities to their fullest extent possible within the confines of his stories.
Three of the sections of this novel were published separately before being collected in the book The Red Pony. The first two, "The Gift" and "The Great Mountains," were published in the North American Review in 1933, and the third, "The Promise," appeared in Harper's in 1937.