The Leader of the People

by John Steinbeck

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As Jody plays aimlessly near his family’s ranch house, his dog’s behavior causes him to look up and see his father coming down the road toward home carrying an object that appears to be a letter. Once inside the house, Carl Tiflin hands his wife, Ruth, a letter from her father, informing them that he will be coming to visit later that day. Noticing the unpleasant expression that appears on Carl’s face, Ruth scolds him for his apparent resentment of her father’s visit. He simply explains that the old man “talks.” Ruth tells her husband to be patient and at least pretend to listen to his repetitious tales. Jody, on the other hand, is excited by the prospect of hearing the often-repeated tales of his grandfather’s leading pioneers across the plains to the west and of their encounters with the Indians. Uncharacteristically, he does his chores carefully, then goes to meet his grandfather. After his happy greeting, Jody invites his grandfather to hunt mice under haystacks with him the next day.

Supper reminds Grandfather of the buffalo that he so often ate during his “crossing” to the west, and he recalls a story that the Tiflins have heard many times. Carl looks for opportunities to interrupt; later in the evening, when the old man predictably starts to say, “I just wonder if I ever told you . . . ,” Carl assures him that they have all heard his tales many times, while avoiding his wife’s angry eyes. Only Jody lies by saying that he has not heard his grandfather’s tales.

The next morning, before Grandfather appears for breakfast, Carl complains about having repeatedly to listen to accounts of the “crossing”—a time that is now over and finished. As Grandfather nears the kitchen, he overhears Carl’s complaints. As he sits down, Carl asks the old man if he heard what he said and apologizes, saying that he was just joking. Grandfather acknowledges that those days are over and that perhaps his stories are no longer relevant.

His spirit now broken, Grandfather confides to Jody that perhaps he should not stay any longer, feeling as he does. He suggests that it is not the stories themselves that matter, but the act of “westering” and of knowing that once the Pacific Ocean was reached, it was over. Jody offers his grandfather some lemonade as his way of offering him solace.

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