Sunday, June 27, 2010

(Book #22) John Steinbeck - Cannery Row

John Steinbeck is considered one of the greatest American writers, and despite this, 'Cannery Row' was only the third novel of his that I have read. The other two books, Of Mice and Men and The Pearl, were both read in High School English, and at the time I really enjoyed one and was completely bored by the other. Maybe it was because of this that I didn't read another for so long, but after having lived in California for nearly ten years now, I felt a sense of obligation to try another.

'Cannery Row', above all, is a portrait of a place, a stretch of town in Monterey, California. To Steinbeck, the best way to depict and characterize this location was through the people that lived there, which he does beautifully. The book follows a handful of characters, but the structure of the novel gives way to a storytelling technique that is unique and works well for the purpose of the book. Steinbeck splices his overall arc with small side-stories of other peculiar townsfolk and manages to give them a sense of unity with the others. The characters we follow are not the well-to-do upper-class, they are the dregs of society: homeless, prostitutes, artists, a Chinese grocer, and a mild-mannered scientist who collects and sells specimens of marine animals. These people, despite their inadequacies, still strive for a sense of community and friendship with each other, and it is through these connections overlaid with the texture, sights and sounds of the place itself that we really get a feel for what Steinbeck may have experienced in his time at Cannery Row.

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