After reading Cannery Row, I’ve pretty much decided that John Steinbeck is my fave.  Sure, all of his novels are somewhat bleak and have a strong undercurrent of ‘moral lesson’ but, damn, he’s a fantastic writer.  Don’t believe me?  The place that Steinbeck was writing about in Cannery Row, Ocean View Avenue, later changed its name to Cannery Row to honour the book.  Got your expectations up yet?

Set during the Great Depression, on a street lined with sardine canneries, Cannery Row follows the lives and stories of the people who live there.  There’s Lee Chong, the resourceful and cunning owner of the local grocery store, who seems to be owed unpaid debts by the majority of the town.  Then there’s Dora Flood, the owner of the local whorehouse, but despite this, she still has morals and standards.  No hard liquor, and no vulgarity to be spoken inside her whorehouse.  They’re ladies present after all.

There’s Mack and his gang of friends, all bums who, though kind-hearted, haven’t got a hard-working bone in any of them.  Large chunks of Cannery Row follow the lives of Mack and his mates, from the unfortunate schemes that they dream up, to the earnest motives that drive them.

Lastly, there’s Doc, the marine biologist that runs the Western Biological; a store that sells all sorts of marine animals.  Doc is possibly one of the most wonderful characters I’ve ever read about.  He tips his hat at dogs and they smile at him, he’s kind and interested in everything that’s going on, and he’s willing to put up with other people’s bad behaviour.  He’s brilliant, and he loves beer, and most importantly, whenever anyone on Cannery Row thinks about Doc, they inevitably think “I really must do something nice for Doc”.

Cannery Row is beautifully written, and while nothing tragic happens in the novel, something about it is so heartbreaking.  John Steinbeck has created a story that completely captivates the time and feeling of that place in the 1930s, and though their lives were completely different from my own, I felt that I could relate to each and every one of his characters.  And what I loved about each of them is that they’re completely content in their lives, without the glitz and glamor that we all strive to achieve in the 21st century.

Also, unlike other Steinbeck novels, Cannery Row doesn’t lead to a tragic and climatic ending that essentially sums up to an overall moral point.  Yet there is no doubt as to what Steinbeck is trying to get across.  All of us need to make the effort to think about others, and treat them in the same way that they treat us.  Otherwise, they may very well become like the character Doc; beloved by all, but completely unaware of it.

The other overwhelming theme in Cannery Row is not to superficially view other people.  Everyone is deeper than we may initially think, and there’s always more than meets the eye.  Steinbeck writes about characters like Dora and Mack, people we may easily judge simply due to their place in society, but are essentially good people.  Yet, though it could have come across as preachy or insincere, Steinbeck beautifully captures the essence of these characters, who honestly feel like real people.

Overall, Cannery Row was a fantastic read.  It’s not long, it’s not difficult to read, but it is truly a masterpiece.  Steinbeck, needless to say, you’re a bit of an over-achiever.

Have you read Cannery Row or anything by John Steinbeck?  Are you a fan of his writing?  Let me know!

cannery row by john steinbeck

Cannery Row – (image taken from