If you are new to John Steinbeck’s prose, Cannery Row may not be the most obvious choice, but it is a wonderful novella that is worth reading. It takes place in Monterey, which I visited last summer during our family trip to California. My favorites in Monterey peninsula are Fisherman’s Wharf, the 17 Mile Drive, Pacific Grove, Carmel Beach and Carmel-by-the-Sea. Once a fisherman’s town, with sardines as the primary source of income, Monterey is today a famous travel destination with an impressive natural beauty and charming streets with many boutiques, galleries and cafés. I picked up my copy of the book in the Monterey Bay Aquarium shop. The aquarium, which was originally built as the famous sardine factory of Monterey, is now an exciting place to experience the rich sea life of California.
Steinbeck’s novella Cannery Row takes place in 1940’s, when Monterey was the world’s largest sardine supplier. The title of the book, Cannery Row, is also the name of the main street and the neighborhood of the famous sardine factory, which played a central role in the lives of the town’s inhabitants.
The predominant theme of the book is friendship. The book is a colorful collage of amazing and mostly shifty characters whose lives evolve around the sardine factory . We have Mack and his buddies, the local hobos, whose petty mischief we are inclined to oversee in the light of their good intentions, which unfortunately always fail. Take the amazing episode where they venture into collecting frogs for Doc, so that he can complete his scientific research. Doc, one of the main characters, is a gentle intellectual, a dedicated scientist but somewhat lonely and melancholic. Then there is the owner of the local grocery shop, Lee Chong, whose store “while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply”. The descriptions of the tensions between Lee Chong and Mack, while Mack succeeds in persuading him to rent him and the boys an empty storage house, the Palace Flophouse, are amazing. Take the couple, Mr. & Mrs. Malloy who move into a deserted boiler from the canning factory during the housing shortage caused by a great catch of fish in 1937; Mrs. Malloy who wants curtains for the boiler, which has no windows!
It has always seemed strange to me, said Doc. The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.
The book is full of human values and warmth, even in the shabbiest places. Steinbeck’s prose is simple, straightforward and very powerful. Through Doc’s words, Steinbeck reminds us of the paradox of humanity: Head versus heart, goodness versus success. Success has nothing to do with goodness. Goodness is considered as softness and not a desirable trait in the business world. But we may find lots of goodness among the so call failures.
I hope this piece has inspired you to read this amazing little book. Or maybe even to take a trip to Monterey 🙂