Saturday, December 17, 2011

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

genre: adult fiction

Cannery Row is a street in Monterey, California.  It's lined with sardine canneries, a grocery store, some vacant lots and a brothel with a bar.  The ocean and its tides are part of the backdrop, as is a marine labratory - the lab is an important part of our setting because it is the home and workplace of Doc.  Doc is one of the three central characters in Cannery Row and in case you can't tell, there's not really a plot to this book.  Cannery Row is a look at a place and its people, what happens is not so much the point as how the people react to what happens and why they do what they do.

Doc is an exceptional fellow - shrewd and yet forgiving, clearly very intelligent and capable, he stands apart from the perpetually unemployed Mack and his boys by the mere fact that Doc always is working.  Also always working is the Chinese grocer who, as the keeper of the only convenient shop, has a bit of a thumb hold over the town.  In short glimpses, like looking through a magnifying glass or one of Doc's microscopes, we periodically look closely at each of these characters and all their frailties and strengths are there to be dissected.

What I like about reading Steinbeck is that he doesn't write about mainstream characters.  He writes about these fringe people, those who make unfortunate choices ninety percent of the time and yet, as Steinbeck shows us, usually their hearts are actually in the right place.  I found the small instances of forgiveness in this book so lovely and while it is not really a pretty story, I feel like it deserves four stars because of how carefully Steinbeck chooses his words and how deliberate he is about what he chooses to tell us about his characters.  There is nothing superfluous - if all we need to know about a character can be told in one two-page chapter, that's all we get.  We may not see that character again but yet that person has added to the ambiance and tone of Cannery Row and its regulars.

If you've read and enjoyed any other Steinbeck, please give this one a try.  Read it for Doc and Mack and those others who sift through what Cannery Row can offer them and somehow make a satisfying life.

note: if you're interested in the content of the books I read, please go to

1 comment:

Ms. Peacock said...

Hey Corinne,
I love this review of Cannery Row, I was struggling to tap into the essence of it all on my own blog and decided to just re-route any readers to this. Thanks :)

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