My 2-Sentence Summary
In Great Depression-era California, a small coastal town bustles with life. Doc is a locally respected marine biologist; trouble starts when a group of well-meaning but flaky drifters try to show their appreciation for him by throwing a party.
Cannery Row might be described as a meditative series of character studies. The town is a bustling ecosystem of sympathies, longings, tacit alliances, petty slights – all running parallel to the ocean’s ecosystem. No creature is too plain, too poor, or too small for the narrator’s curious gaze. All are treated with compassion and quiet wonder.
I was born a century too late (and on the wrong coast) to feel nostalgia for California of the 1930s, but Steinbeck’s evident love for the place and time period is contagious. Somehow, his nostalgia is inclusive: remember back when the Model T reigned supreme on the road? When you could barter with the shopkeeper for a bottle of whiskey, or wave to that eccentric fellow living in a landed boat on the beach?
“When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to catch whole for they will break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and 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 let the stories crawl in by themselves.”
Steinbeck finds such beauty in squalor, without becoming saccharine. A new favorite!
I’m on a mission to read more classic literature. Here’s my master list of classics, if you’re interested.