Book review: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

I approached this with considerable trepidation.

It was a ‘set text’ ‘ a novel from the list for the Readers Group.

I haven’t read many works by mainstream American authors though I am familiar with Steinbeck’s work.

As I said, approached with trepidation.

And pleasantly surprised.

Set (as is Grapes of Wrath, a work I know well) during the American Depression, Cannery Row is an examination of people and events in the Monterey district of California.

There is a surprising social ecology to Cannery Row.

There’s a micro’economic/social entity that is fed by the people and acts we encounter; visitors to the whorehouse, the work produced by the canneries and – much to the fore – by Doc’s endeavours.

Outputs of this feed trickle down to the smallest, most insignificant (if that’s not an oxymoron because in this work Steinbeck has chosen no character to be completely insignificant) character and affects their lives.

Is this an indication of Steinbeck’s humanistic views; this sensitive exploration of a smaller model of society as a whole?

If so it makes Steinbeck an idealistic writer, a romantic author.

Certainly one of the pivotal characters – Doc – is an over-romanticised character.

A kind of ‘community elder’, Doc is a lonely man; lonely by choice, lonely by design (as much as any character is designed by its author) and lonely as programmed by his ever’present musical selections.

Doc seems familiar; perhaps there are shades of him in Casy, a character who features in The Grapes of Wrath (the only other Steinbeck novel I’ve read).

Cannery Row displays an interconnectedness between all layers of human society.

From Doc to the bums who occupy the grandly titled Palace Flophouse (a near derelict shack the boys occupy and pay no rent for).

To the Chinese shopkeeper.

To the working girls who ply their trade in The Bear Flag.

The writing is pleasantly readable; Steinbeck chooses not to load the reader down with details of The Great Depression in Cannery Row.

And there is also humour.

And these two things make this book peculiar to read.

Most works that centre on the Great Depression convey the hopelessness, the grinding unimaginable despair of the time.

Cannery Row does not.

It is an undepressive book set in a time of terrible depression.

An interesting contradiction.

Cannery Row isn’t a Great Work.

It’s a small, tight, readable observation of life in a subsection of Californian society during one of America’s toughest times.

But because it is an observational work of the calibre that could have been written by a war correspondent (which Steinbeck had been), it contains the first two but lacks the third of the things that have been drilled in to me that All Great Works Must Have: a Beginning, a Middle and an End.


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3 Responses to Book review: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

  1. Chloé says:

    Will you find the End in Sweet Thursday (the sequel)? I can’t tell you because I read those when I was twelve and nerdy (as opposed to being twenty-something and nerdy), and I don’t remember.

    The sad thing being that I read them several times, together with Tortilla Flat, and I can’t remember much of them. Except for something like an atmosphere (which can be set without anything resembling a Beginning, a Middle or an End whatsoever).

  2. Brennig says:

    Hi Chloé,

    Ummm…. thanks for offering up the idea of the sequel, that’s very interesting.

    But I have to admit that I’m only mildly tempted; I’ve got so much in front of me that I’m going to struggle to get my University coursework done on time.

    Leisure reading is really going to take a back seat in the next few months.

    But thanks, I’ll keep it in mind.