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In the late nineteenth century,
a man named Samuel Hamilton settles in the Salinas Valley in northern
California. He brings his strict but loving wife, Liza, with him
from Ireland. Although Samuel is well respected in the community,
he never becomes a wealthy man. The Hamiltons go on to have nine
children and become a prominent family in the valley.
Adam Trask, meanwhile, settles in the valley with his
pregnant wife Cathy where he eventually becomes friends with Samuel Hamilton.
Before moving to California, Adam lives on a farm in Connecticut
with his half-brother, Charles. The dark and moody Charles resents
the fact that his and Adam’s father, Cyrus, has always favored the
good-natured Adam. Upon his death, Cyrus leaves his sons a large
and unexpected fortune, probably stolen during his days as an administrator
in the U.S. Army. Despite their newfound wealth, Adam and Charles
remain unable to get along. Charles is disgusted at his
brother’s marriage to Cathy, who, unbeknownst to Adam or Charles,
is a former prostitute who murdered her parents and stole their
money. Although Charles despises Cathy, he takes her into his bed
after she drugs Adam on their wedding night.
Adam and Cathy move to California, as Adam proves unable
to live peacefully with Charles in Connecticut. In Salinas, Cathy
learns she is pregnant and attempts to abort her baby in order to
prevent any furtherance of ties to her husband. She is desperate
to escape Adam despite the fact that he loves her and provides for
her. The abortion is unsuccessful, and Cathy eventually gives birth
to twins, Aron and Caleb (Cal). It is clear from the start, however,
that Cathy does not care about the infants and wants to leave the
household as soon as possible. One day, Cathy shoots Adam, flees
the house, and moves to Salinas proper to resume her life as a prostitute.
Adam decides to cover for Cathy by lying to the local sheriff and
saying that his gunshot wound was an accident.
Cathy wins the trust of Faye, the madam of a local brothel,
then poisons her and fools the doctors and other prostitutes into
thinking that Faye died naturally. Cathy assumes control of the
brothel and starts to blackmail powerful men in Salinas with photographs
of them performing sadomasochistic sex acts with her and her prostitutes.
To protect the dazed Adam and his twin boys, neither Samuel Hamilton
nor Lee, Adam’s housekeeper, tells Adam or the boys that Cathy works
at a brothel.
As the twins grow older, Aron manifests his father’s good
heart, whereas Cal exhibits his mother’s ruthlessness and tendency
to manipulate. By the time they reach early adolescence, however,
Cal actively struggles against his dark side and prays to God to
make him more like Aron. Adam, meanwhile, remains melancholy and listless
for years after Cathy’s departure. In order to jolt Adam out of his
despondency, Samuel finally tells him the truth about Cathy. Samuel
dies soon afterward.
After Samuel’s funeral, Adam visits Cathy at the brothel.
Her deteriorating body and cynical, vulgar talk make Adam realize
that he can now move on and forget her, as she is a repugnant creature who
has become irrelevant to his life. Cathy, however, is desperate to
retain power over Adam. She even offers to have sex with him to keep
him in the brothel and prove that he is no better than she. Adam
refuses and leaves with a serene smile.
After his triumph over Cathy, Adam becomes a livelier
and more committed father to his boys. Adam decides to move the
family off the ranch and into the town of Salinas so that Aron and
Cal can attend school. The twins are assigned to the seventh grade,
and Aron begins a relationship with Abra, the goodhearted daughter
of a corrupt county supervisor. Cal continues to struggle with his
dark side, and when he finally happens to discover the truth about
his mother, he believes that her evil has been passed down to him.
But Adam’s housekeeper, Lee, who has extensively researched the
biblical story of Cain and Abel, advises Cal that God intends each
individual to choose his own moral destiny rather than be constrained by
the legacy of his parents. This idea, encapsulated by the Hebrew word timshel (meaning
“thou mayest”), counters Cal’s fatalistic idea that he has inherited
his mother’s evil and sin.
Aron gradually withdraws into religious fervor in order
to shield himself from the corruption of the world—an approach that
Abra and Lee consider cowardly. Adam, meanwhile, squanders the family
fortune on a poorly executed business venture involving refrigerated
shipping of vegetables. Aron graduates from high school early and
leaves for Stanford University. Adam misses Aron terribly, thinking
him smarter and more ambitious than Cal.
However, Cal, in collaboration with Will Hamilton, one
of Samuel’s sons, works secretly to earn back the fortune his father
lost on the failed refrigeration business. Cal also hopes to make
enough money to pay for Aron’s tuition at Stanford. In the strained
economy of World War I, Will and Cal buy beans from local farmers
at an unfairly low price and sell the beans, in turn, to desperate
British buyers at an unfairly high price. The venture nets Cal thousands
of dollars, which he plans to give to his father as a gift at Thanksgiving.
Aron, who is miserable at Stanford, comes home for Thanksgiving.
Adam is thrilled to see Aron but appalled by Cal’s gift of money. Adam
considers the money to be earned dishonestly and tells Cal to give
it back to the farmers from whom he stole it. Enraged and jealous
of Adam’s obvious preference for Aron, Cal loses control of his anger
and rashly tells Aron the truth about their mother, Cathy. When
Cal takes Aron to the brothel to show him that Cathy is still alive,
the revelation crushes the fragile Aron, who screams incoherently
and runs away. The next day, the shattered Aron joins the Army,
while Cathy, horrified by her son’s reaction to her, commits suicide
by overdosing on morphine. She leaves her entire fortune—part of
it inherited from Charles, part of it earned through blackmail and
When Adam discovers that Aron has joined the Army, he
lapses into a state of shock. Lee talks to Cal about the idea of timshel and urges
Cal to remember that, despite his guilt, he is a normal, flawed human
being—not an aberrant embodiment of evil. This discussion makes
Cal feel somewhat better, and he is able to begin a relationship
with Abra, who is no longer in love with Aron.
A telegram arrives informing the family that Aron has
been killed in World War I. Adam has a severe stroke upon
hearing the news, and Lee brings Abra and Cal to see Adam on his
deathbed. Lee informs Adam that the guilt-stricken Cal told Aron
about their mother only because Cal was convinced
that their father loved Aron more than him. Lee asks Adam to offer
his blessing to Cal before he dies. At this, Adam raises his hand
and whispers the single word timshel.