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Cannery Row

John Steinbeck is one of America’s most talented writers of the 20th Century. You may be familiar with his more popular works The Grapes of Wrath, The Pearl, Of Mice and Men and East of Eden, all excellent books, but my favorite Steinbeck work is a lesser-known novel Cannery Row. Cannery Row is a great comedy full of characters you connect with emotionally. The characters’ stories and lives unfold on Cannery Row, a street lined with sardine canneries in Monterey, California during the Great Depression. Doc is a marine biologist who collects ocean specimens he sells to universities and labs for study.

The most educated person among them, Doc is always helping the street’s other inhabitants with everything from physical ailments to philosophical questions. “Mack and the boys,” a group of young ne’re-do-wells, “who had in common no families, no money, and no ambition beyond food, drink and contentment” want to repay Doc for his kindness.

Mack and the boys live in an old one-room warehouse christened “The Palace Flophouse and Grill” belonging to the local grocer, Lee Chong. Never actually collecting rent, Lee lets the boys live there to cut down on their stealing from his store. Another Cannery Row resident, Dora Flood, operates “The Bear Flag Restaurant,” a most upstanding bordello; Dora does not abide foul language or hard liquor on her premises. 

The story leads us through Mack and the boys’ inept efforts to throw a party for Doc. Despite their well-intentioned plans, their drinking and other selfish desires always seem to get in the way. I alternated laughing out loud and feeling pity for the boys from start to finish. The main characters are easy to relate to, I certainly remember a group similar to the flophouse gang in my neighborhood growing up. This novel shows us community at its best, diverse people coming together to try to help one another. Steinbeck also weaves short stories of various other characters from Cannery Row and the nearby town into the plot.

If you enjoy Cannery Row then check out its sequel, Sweet Thursday, which shares the same setting and many of the same characters. This time, everyone wants to help Doc again by finding him someone to love. These titles are widely available on-line and at your local bookstore in various editions and bindings.


 Have a book you would like to see reviewed? Want to submit your own review of a favorite? Or just want to let us know what you think. E-mail me at jarrinrudd@att.net  or look me up on Facebook, (it’s easy, I’m the only Jarrin Rudd in the Nashville network); I need more book-loving friends from the MRJ area. We need your help and feedback to make this new column a success!

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