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USA by the Book: California

Cannery Row - John Steinbeck

This book is extremely difficult to review. I’m going to talk for a minute, then I’m going to post a pictures, and then I’m going to add a few quotes.


Let me begin by saying that this book is almost entirely plot-less. It is a series of vignettes set on the hardscrabble California coast during the Great Depression. This is not the glittery California of Hollywood, or the botoxed and self-absorbed California of modern Orange County. This is Steinbeck’s California, which isn’t a whole lot different from Jack London’s California, although their existences barely overlapped on this green Earth.


Cannery Row was nostalgic when Steinbeck wrote it, and it remains oddly nostalgic today. Anyone who has studied America during the Great Depression has a Steinbeckian sensitivity from reading The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men.


In Cannery Row, Steinbeck demonstrates this same ability to evoke time and place and he writes characters that are so convincing they feel like memoir or history on the page.


The main characters of Cannery Row are Lee Chong, the owner of the general store, who extends credit to his customers because they will eventually repay him rather than make the long trip over to his competitor’s store in Monterey, and Mack, the layabout leader of the other layabouts who have taken over the building they call “Palace Flophouse” and Doc, the marine biologist who studies and collects sea creatures from up and down the California coast, which he provides to universities and museums around the U.S.


Doc is based upon a real person, and friend of Steinbeck’s, Ed Ricketts, to whom he dedicated Cannery Row.


“Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and turn it into wisdom. His mind had no horizon – and his sympathy had no warp. He could talk to children, telling them very profound things so that they understood. He lived in a world of wonders, of excitement. He was concupiscent as a rabbit and gentle as hell. Everyone who knew him was indebted to him. And everyone who thought of him thought next, ‘I really must do something nice for Doc.”


Mack tries to do something nice for Doc, by throwing him a party, which goes badly awry. In an effort to make amends, he plans to throw another, hopefully more successful, party. That is really the extent of the story.



One of my favorite parts of Cannery Row were Steinbeck’s descriptions of the California coast. He begins the book with these words:


“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.”


and describes the receding of the tide:


“The tide goes out imperceptibly. The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean recedes leaving little pools, leaving wet weed and moss and sponge, iridescence and brown and blue and China red. On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble.”


I read this book to represent California in my Read Across America project. It was a fantastic selection. Highly recommended.