Cannery Row was written by John Steinbeck and published in 1945. This short novel is about a community of people who live on a certain strip in Monterey’s Cannery Row. The book is essentially a portrait of a certain place and time, which comes to life with the group of characters who are mostly all pretty low on the economic ladder. They have good hearts, a wonderful sense of friendship and community, and they find happiness in their simple lives.
There isn’t much of a plot in Cannery Row, but plot isn’t really needed for what Steinbeck set out to do. He says in the beginning that he wanted to capture this place, but didn’t quite know how to do that except to let it seep into these pages. I think he did a pretty good job of that. The story is vivid, heartwarming and humorous for most of the book, and although it isn’t a novel where you’re racing to see what happens, you don’t want it to end. You want to linger in this place with these characters just a little longer.
Steinbeck always does a great job with his settings, successfully transporting the reader to a different time and place. With Cannery Row, the setting was so pivotal and the centre point of the entire story. He describes this one area of Cannery Row in Monterey so vividly it’s as if I could walk down that street and know exactly where everything is located. The house belonging to one of the characters (Doc’s house and laboratory) is described in such a way that I feel I could navigate my way through there as if it was my own home.
Oh, what a lovable group of characters there were in this book. There was Lee Chong, the grocery owner, trying to do the best he could in his store but struggling. Most of the people there were trying to trade frogs and old buildings in exchange for his groceries. There were Mack and his Boys, a group of down and out guys similar to the guys in Tortilla Flat, but more lovable and with purer hearts. There was Dora, the charitable brothel owner and her girls, and lastly the character that seemed like the sun of the story that all the other characters orbited around, Doc. He was a marine biologist and lover of literature and music. Everyone in the community loved and admired him – if you ask me, I believe he’s based on a very good friend of John Steinbeck’s named Ed Ricketts. There were other smaller characters that were also endearing and fascinating, and this cast of characters were truly wonderful.
As usual, Steinbeck focuses on the outsiders of society. In a profound moment in the book one of the characters says that the people who don’t do as well in society are those that display all the best human traits, such as kindness, honesty etc. Vice versa, he says that those that are successful and powerful in society display the worst traits – selfishness, greed, dishonesty etc. He brings to our attention that the simple things are important in life and that people we think of as good, successful and wealthy are not always the most admirable.
In his crazy cast of characters, he gives us saints in disguise. While most of these characters seem pretty happy, he does show us there is loneliness in being an outsider as well. In another profound moment of the book, a boy comes face to face with an old Chinese man nobody talks to. The boy is terrified because all he can see in this man’s eyes is a vast plain of empty loneliness.
Did I Like It?
I loved it. This may have just been a series of sketches about a certain place and a wacky band of lovable characters, but dare I say that this is still Steinbeck at his best? His writing was captivating, his setting was so vivid as to seem real, his characters were heartwarming, there was lots of humour but also there were some deeper, profound moments exploring humanity as well. What more could you want from a Steinbeck novel? This is the eighth Steinbeck book I’ve read now and while East of Eden will always be my favoruite, Cannery Row is a solid contender for a place in my top three.
Do I Recommend It?
Yes! Usually I recommend those who haven’t read Steinbeck to read East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men first to start, but if you’re already a lover of Steinbeck, you must pick this up.