The narrator of the novel grew up in the Salinas valley in northern California. He remembers how the mountains to the east were always bright with light, while the mountains to the west were always dark and foreboding. The mountains foreshadow the story that will follow; it is a tale of good versus evil, the Cain and Abel story retold.
One of the narratorís relatives, Samuel Hamilton, came from Northern Ireland and settled with his wife Liza in the Salinas valley. Since the best land had been taken already, his land was rocky, rough, and unprofitable. In spite of their financial struggles, Liza and Samuel raised a large family that was very close. The sons became known for their ambition, and the daughters were known for their beauty. Samuel accepted his plight and life and became the philosopher of the region.
Adam Trask, a rich landowner, was one of Samuelís neighbors. Adam grew up with his brother Charles on a farm in Connecticut. Their father, Cyrus Trask, loved Adam best, even though Charles loved his father best. As a result of his fatherís favoritism, Charles was jealous of Adam even though he loved him dearly. When Cyrus sent Adam to join the army, Charles wrote his brother long letters telling him he missed him and wanted him back on the farm.
When Adam was released from the army, he wrote that he was coming home, and Charles was delighted. He worked tirelessly to get the farm ready for Adam; but when Adam began his journey, he realized he did not want to live with his jealous brother. As a result, he stayed in the army. Charles was hurt and angry. For five years the brothers had little contact, and when Adam was released again from the army, he did not think about going to the farm. Instead, he wandered the country as a hobo and was imprisoned on a chain gang for a year. When he escaped from his captivity, Adam decided to return to the farm; but things did not go smoothly between the brothers. Because he and Charles argued regularly, Adam decided to leave. After wandering the country for a long time, he again returned to the farm. Shortly after his return, the brothers received word that their father had died and left them a fortune. Charles was certain their father stole the money from the army, but Adam thought their father was innocent.
Cathy Ames, a teenage girl, grew up different from all other children. She was precociously sexual, but managed to keep others from finding out about it. She sacrificed her lovers, even when it meant their imprisonment or death. When her parents tried to limit her freedom, she carefully planned and carried out their murder and then left town with their money. Cathy applied for a job as a prostitute; the manager wanted her for his own and set her up in a house. She manipulated him in an effort to gain her own independence. One night, he got Cathy drunk. She lost control and revealed her disgust for him and her plans to escape from him. He took her on a train trip to a country town, where he beat her severely and left her for dead. Cathy came to consciousness and crawled to the Trask farm, where Charles and Adam were living. Adam nursed Cathy back to health and married her. The evil Cathy drugged Adam on their wedding night and had sex with Charles.
Adam forced Cathy to move to California, where Adam bought a place in the Salinas Valley and hired Lee, an oriental helper. Adam also met Samuel Hamilton, who befriended him and gave him advice about land and farming. Additionally, Adam learned that Cathy was pregnant; Adam was delighted, but Cathy was miserable, for she was not ready or fit to be a mother. She told Adam that she wanted to leave the farm and did not want the baby. When Samuel met Cathy, he was disturbed by her behavior, just like Lee had always been. Samuel was on Adamís land drilling for water when Cathy went into labor. He actually delivered the twins. During the labor, Cathy showed her evil side, biting his hand and causing an infection. After the birth, Cathy told Adam she wanted to leave; to prevent her from going, he locked her in her room. When she cajoled him into opening the door, she shot him in the chest and departed, leaving her hungry twins behind. Adam was too miserable over the loss of his wife to care for his sons; Lee became their surrogate father and mother.
Cathy went to Salinas, changed her name to Kate, and joined a house of prostitution, where she developed a close relationship with Faye, the madam of the house. The sheriff knew that Kate was Adamís wife and mother of the twins; he told her he would expose her if she ever tried to use her connection to Adam for profit or if she ever revealed her identity to her twin sons. Kate gained Fayeís trust to such an extent that Faye made out a will that left everything to Kate, whom she treated like an adopted daughter. At a party Faye gave to honor Kate, Faye insisted that she drink some champagne. Kate quickly became inebriated and lost control, telling Faye that she hated her. The next day, when Kate realized what she had done, she made Faye think she had dreamed all that happened the night before. She then decided to kill Faye by giving her poison, which she administered in small doses.
Adam had great difficulty recovering from the loss of his wife. Even after the twins were a year old, he had not bothered to name them. When the kind Samuel heard about Adamís condition, he went to the Trask place to jolt Adam out of his depression. With Leeís help, Samuel suggested names for the boys from the Old Testament. Adam agreed to name one son Caleb, after the Biblical character who returned to the Promised Land, and one son Aaron, after Mosesí brother who did not make it back to the Promised Land. The choice of name was a foreshadowing of the fates of the twins.
When Samuel went to see Adam to announce that his children were forcing him to retire, he, Adam, and Lee discussed the Cain and Abel story from the Bible. Abel presents to the Lord the best of his sheep as a sacrificial offering, while Cain merely presents a small portion of his grain. The Lord is greatly pleased with Abelís sacrifice, but displeased with Cainís offering. As a result, Cain grows jealous of his brother and kills him. When the Lord questions Cain, he asks, "Am I my brotherís keeper?" The Lord admonishes him and punishes him, saying he will never be able to produce crops from the land again and must travel the earth as a wanderer. The Lord also speaks to Cain about sin. Lee told Samuel and Adam that the English versions of the Bible have a mistranslation from the Hebrew about Cainís sin. In his studies, Lee found that the Hebrew word timshel should be translated "you may," indicating that the Lord tells Cain he has freedom of choice and may choose goodness or evil.
After hearing the new interpretation of the Cain and Abel story, Samuel decided that he must tell Adam about Cathyís transformation into Kate, believing that it would help Adam reject her memory and get on with life. The naïve Adam refused to believe that Cathy had chosen such an evil existence. The next time he was in Salinas, for the funeral of Samuel, Adam went to Kateís house of prostitution. Seeing her aged appearance and wretched lifestyle, he finally accepted that he was no longer in love with her. When he returned home, he told Lee he wanted to begin anew.
Mr. and Mrs. Bacon, and their daughter Abra, called upon Adam and suggested that he should move to town with his boys so that they could attend better schools. Aaron was very impressed with Abra and vowed he would some day marry her. When Adam decided to make the move, Aaron found Abra the first day of school and they became inseparable. Cal felt left out and grew jealous of his brother.
After years of silence, Adam wrote a letter to his brother Charles and invited him for a visit. He received a return letter from an attorney, announcing Charlesí death and the terms of his will. He had divided his estate, worth $100,000, equally between Adam and Cathy. The good-hearted Adam went to Kate and gave her the portion of Charlesí estate, even though Lee advised against it. Adam used his portion of the inheritance to invest in shipping California lettuce to New York in poorly refrigerated train cars. When he lost his fortune, the town called him a fool, turned against him, and started circulating rumors about his past with Kate. Cal heard the rumors and found out the truth about his mother, eventually paying her a visit. Horrified over her condition and wanting to do the right thing, Cal vowed he would never tell Aaron the truth about their mother. He also decided that he would go into business and save enough money to give his father the amount that he had lost on the lettuce venture.
Abra was curious about Aaronís mother and goaded him to ask Adam about her. Aaron, however, wanted to believe that she was dead and in heaven, just as his father had always said. He could not bear to think that his father and Lee would lie to him. Not wanting to face the truth and desiring to run away from the shame of his fatherís business failure, Aaron decided to graduate early from high school and enter college to study and become a minister. When he told Abra of his plans to pastor a high church and remain celibate, she tried to change his mind and hoped he was only going through a phase.
Kate received a visitor, a woman named Ethel who used to work for her. She blackmailed Kate by indicating that she knew that Kate had murdered Faye. Kate sent her right-hand-man, Joe Valery, to find Ethel and bring her back. Kate, of course, was planning on murdering her. Joe seized the opportunity to try and trick Kate. He told her that he could not find Ethel, but that he heard she was planning a return trip to Salinas. In truth, he had learned that Ethel was dead. When Kate figured out that Joe was lying, she asked the sheriff to check his fingerprints, for she knew he was an escaped convict. When the deputy tried to arrest Joe, he ran. The deputy shot and killed him.
Aaron was coming home from college for Thanksgiving. Adam was terribly excited, for he missed his favorite son and had idealized him into perfection in his absence. Cal, wanting to buy his fatherís love, decided he would present him at Thanksgiving dinner with the $15,000 he had earned and saved. Adam rejected the money, which had been made from war profits, and told Cal he should try to be good like his brother. Cal retaliated by taking Aaron to see Kate. Kate was so upset by the encounter that she decided to commit suicide. Before she took her overdose of morphine, she wrote out her will, leaving everything to Aaron.
Aaron was so upset by learning the truth about his mother that he joined the military and was killed. When Adam heard about Aaronís death, he had a stroke. Cal blamed himself for his brotherís death and his fatherís illness. Lee tried to comfort Cal by telling him he was not evil; instead, he had the freedom to choose goodness or evil for himself. Lee knew, however, that Cal would never forgive himself unless he had his fatherís blessing; therefore, he took the remaining twin into Adamís room, where he blessed Cal and called out the word timshel to him, reminding Cal that he could choose goodness over evil, happiness over guilt. The novel ends on a hopeful note. Cal has become the Abel figure - the good son. Abra has fallen in love with him, and the reader is left to believe that they will have a normal married life together.
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