Steinbeck turns out a wonderful story in which the place is a bigger character than the people within it. But will the lack of any real plot make for an enjoyable read?
Author : John Steinbeck
Published January 1st, 1945
181 pages Hard Cover collection from Amaranth Press
Cannery Row opens with a first page that sets the tone perfectly for what you should expect from this short novel. This story is about this very specific, yet wholly vague, place in Monterey, California. Usually I wouldn’t drop a quote this early in my review, but with this book, it’s fitting. Here is the opening line:
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky-tonks, restaurants and whore-houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flop houses.John Steinbeck – Cannery Row
When compared with the other stories in this five novel journey through the world of Steinbeck that I’m on, Cannery Row stands out as wholly unique. We are still treated to a handful of those wonderful ‘Steinbeck characters’. Characters that, no matter how dire their circumstances, accept their situation for what it is and go about finding a way to go on living anyways.
However, in Cannery Row, those characters are much more of a side piece to the story of the place. Steinbeck introduces us to his small cast of characters in a way that feels almost happenstance in comparison to his decision to tell a story of this unique place. Not THE story of this place, only A story of a brief moment in time. The end of that first page sums up why this first page sets the stage so amazingly well, it goes like this:
When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will on to a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book – to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.John Steinbeck – Cannery Row
No beginning, no real end. Just a collection of moments and stories that have crawled onto Steinbeck’s open page to be savored later.
Normally I’d give a brief, spoiler free, breakdown of the plot to give you an idea what you are in for. But this book really doesn’t have much of a plot to speak of. Sure there is Lee Chong who owns the grocery/convenience store, Doc and his time spent in his lab studying marine life, Mack who is the “leader” of a group of men living a free and easy life that would make The Dude from The Big Lebowski proud, but there is no big driving plot for any of them.
Instead, they all get their moment to shine alongside this unique place that runs with it’s own set of rules. Cannery Row is a pretty tight knit community and while most there don’t have much, there is a general feeling that they all watch out for each other and overall they are all just trying to get by and do good by each other.
That lack of a character driven plot may turn a lot of readers off. However, when viewed as a journal of a place instead of through the eyes of any one character, Steinbeck has a beautiful, minimalistic tale of people from all walks of life doing what they can to be better people.
The biggest, or maybe closest is a better term, character arc is what we see from the character of Mack. He’s clever and smart and COULD have a much better life than what he has, at least to an outside observer. But we see him, almost through the eyes of Cannery Row itself, reveal a deeper layer in which he struggles with feelings of being cursed, of always messing a good thing up without trying, but also of always managing to take care of what he needs without being greedy about it. At one point the character of Doc comments about it, about how maybe Mack and the boys have truly figured out the secret of life. Not worrying about things and being content with what they do actually have.
After the heaviness of The Grapes of Wrath and the dark hopefulness of The Moon is Down, Cannery Row becomes a perfect follow up. While things are difficult for the characters of this story, there are some ups and downs of course, overall this feels like a light-hearted celebration of place. As if you are getting a peek at news accounts and journals that share all the juicy secrets that place has gathered over the years.
It meanders and strolls at it’s own pace, never too high, never too low, and it does what the first page sets out to do. These stories seem to have crawled onto the blank page of their own free will, and while there is no real strong plot the stories of Cannery Row have a way of pulling you along as they crawl across the page. And while it’s certainly not a “page turner”, Steinbeck’s ability to draw readers into a casual story of place is truly wonderful.
As such, Cannery Row by John Steinbeck gets a 4 out of 5 stars.
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