After the great success of ORDEAL BY HUNGER and the publication of the Derby biography, Stewart believed he had reached a literary plateau. With all his writing and all his success, he felt that he needed a new challenge. As Dag Hammarskjold put it, “Never judge the height of a mountain until you have reached the summit. Then you will see how low it is.” Stewart wanted to climb to higher summits.
In those golden American literary days, it was the goal of every writer to become an author — a “creator of works.” Stewart was no exception. One day, he drove to Santa Rosa, California, to give a talk. On the two-hour drive through Marin and Sonoma Counties, he made a decision — he would write a novel.
Stewart had in fact been preparing to write a novel for several years. Jack Stewart remembered that he would work late into the night, reading novels and making notes. Once he felt he was beginning to get the hang of it, he practiced by writing a novel or two which he didn’t intend to publish: “Detective Story” was the most important of those practice works. Writing a detective story is said to be excellent training for writing any fiction, because you cannot let your enthusiasm for the genre take you away from plot and character; and although it was not the type of elegant work Stewart would create for publication, the manuscript is still a page turner.
Then he began to research and write his novel. With his interest in California history, that would be the logical broad canvas for the book. And with the success of historical novels with strong heroines — think of GONE WITH THE WIND – Stewart decided his novel would tell the history of California through the life of an American woman.
It’s interesting to note that although Stewart was a great inventor of book types, always looking to break out of traditional molds, that in the case of his first novel he wisely followed the pack with his decision to write an historical novel with a strong female protagonist. That let him focus more of his creative energy on making sure he applied the literary techniques of a good novel in this work.
EAST OF THE GIANTS – the title is taken from the ancient Spanish romance which gives us the name “California” – is the story of Judith Hingam, the young, headstrong daughter of a New England ship’s captain, who accompanies her father and mother on a journey around the Horn to California. Fascinated by the wild beauty of the California landscape at Monterey (in the same way it fascinated Robert Louis Stevenson), and swept off her feet by a romantic Californiano named Juan Godoy, she “jumps ship,” marries Godoy, and becomes the mistress of a huge rancho in Mexican California. Over the years, she learns of the darker side of Juan and his culture, experiences the Yankee invasion and take-over of the region (including the theft of the rancho), watches Juan become a legendary bandit like Tiburcerio Vasquez and die at the hands of Yankees. With her lands and husband gone, La Dona Blanca, as she is called by the Mexican people, becomes an American Californian whose life parallels the history of the young state.
Judith obviously has many ups and downs in her life, and much to be depressed or angry about. But she finds a salvation in what originally won her to California — in the California land. Stewart describes the land in sensual terms, “like a full-breasted woman.” It was part of his growing understanding of the importance of “the land” – the ecosystem – in human affairs.
Published in 1938, the book was a best-seller. It was to be made into a major film, with Irene Dunne as Judith, and might have approached the popularity of “Gone With The Wind.” But World War II intervened, and the film plans were dropped. Stewart, of course, did not mope about that. He continued writing novels. His next novel would invent a form, and become a minor university classic.
And the novel after that, his third, would change – and maybe save – our Earth.