John Steinbeck manages to weave some deep issues of trust and friendship against a background of desperate poverty into this story about a run down community living on the Californian coast. Alongside his other work it is another book that reflects on the struggle of people who are on the brink of extreme poverty and how they dream of finding happiness. In this case they set the modest aim of throwing a party and manage to achieve it leaving you with a very different ending to Of Mice and Men, but no less powerful.
Set a bleak fishing town that is known by its name linking it to the fish canning industry this is about a handful of different characters in that town and their plans and dreams to discover and share some happiness. There are moments of great pathos and when the anger and frustration boil over. There are also bits that are entertaining – for instance the moment when the vagrants use frogs as currency with the grocery store.
Is it well written?
The comment I wrote down immediately after reading this was “beautifully written with an ending that leaves you feeling bereft”. The reason for that is that at the end the main character Doc finally understands his position in the community and the high value of friendship. Up until the end any display of friendship is accompanied by deep suspicion and comes with a catch and it’s almost a case of every man looking out for himself but the different pockets of community – the whores, the couple living in the old boiler, the shop owner and the bums living in his storehouse – all come together at the end and remind us that you don’t have to have money to be happy and rich in spirit.
Is it worth reading?
If you are going through a Steinbeck phase then definitely. What put me onto it is that in the computer magazine I edit we do a weekly interview and ask people what their favourite book is and someone said Cannery Row and it just stood out from the norm so much I bought it that day off eBay. But if you want to read more deeply into the whole class and race literature that dominates 20th century US literature then this has to be included in the list. Not the first Steinbeck you should read but one of first few you should plough through.
It is also worth mentioning that the main character Doc appears is based on a man named Ed Rickett’s a marine biologist who was part of revolutionising that area of science and is recognised for his work in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. For more details click onto: http://www.canneryrow.com a tourist site that also has details of the area’s heritage.
More Steinbeck of course but if you want to get more depression era literature then Upton Sinclair is good, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie is good and for the hollow side of being rich but brutally unfulfilled try some F.Scott Fitzgerald, particuarly Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby.
Version – Penguin Modern Classics