I was inspired to read Cannery Row by John Steinbeck when we went to Monterey as part of our honeymoon in June this year. I really liked Monterey, the aquarium was amazing and the interesting history of Cannery Row was on little notice boards along the footpath. John Steinbeck and his book were also mentioned and so I thought I would check it out.
John Steinbeck has an interesting writing style in this book as he interlinks the stories of many characters to create the atmosphere and life of Cannery Row. There is a loose story behind this but for me that is irrelevant as it is the lives of the characters that he is trying to depict. John doesn’t get involved in the canneries themselves and is more interested in the people who are outside that aspect of society e.g. the brothel, the store owner, the drunks, and how they make up part of the soul of Cannery Row after the canneries close for the day.
We meet a lot of interesting characters – Lee Chong, the storeowner, Mack and the boys, Dora the owner of a brothel, Frankie a troubled teenager, Mr and Mrs Sam Molloy who live in a boiler and Doc who collects specimens for people to study, to name but a few. Each character has a story to tell and through having little outtakes for these stories, John helps us understand and get to know them better. Mack and the boys are among my favourites as they are a group of individuals who have come together as a family. They are intelligent, even if lazy and are kind at heart. They try to help people subtly, but at a low cost to them and really want to show Doc how he is appreciated by everyone. Through many setbacks and disasters they eventually get there. Doc is an intriguing character who contrasts with Mack a lot. He is definitely better off and well educated but he is friendly and a large part of the Cannery Row society. Everyone likes him but when things are done in kindness for him he ends up paying for it himself or sneakily working to make sure it works. It is funny how he fits into Cannery Row and we never quite know his background but he is definitely a central character. I liked the time he was driving down the coast to collect specimens and stopped about every 2 hours to eat. It was a funny story and we got an insight into Doc’s life which showed a man who enjoyed his own company but maybe was a little lonely.
I can see why Monterey may not have liked this depiction of Cannery Row as it describes the more lower class of society. But what we need to realise is that society, when this was written, was made up of many different people of all classes. John is also trying to point out the unfairness of society too – these people don’t all live in nice houses and some don’t have happy families, but for characters like Mack and the boys, they are a family and make their accommodation really nice to live in. Mr and Mrs Molloy live in a boiler and it is such a poignant moment when Mrs Molloy would like some curtains even though they don’t have windows. It is sad but she just wants what other people have – a nice house to call home. The woman who tries to cheer up her depressed husband throws little tea parties for cats as they have no money and struggle. So she builds a small fantasy that she is part of that type of society. I don’t think she is completely mad but just wants a little something to cheer her up and her husband. Overall as we read the story we get to know the characters better and understand that they are a small close community who despite some struggles try to lead life as best as they can. But not all is doom and gloom – they do have happy moments and friendship too.
I liked this book a lot and plan to read another John Steinbeck book in the near future as I liked the way he writes. Even though the story takes some time to get into I would recommend it as a classic book to read. It an emotional story of friendship, hardship, life in the real world and also has some classic comic moments.
What did you think of this book or other John Steinbeck books?