Breaking the Mold: a review of Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row - feature

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck challenged me. Not in the way that a work of Shakespeare or Joseph Conrad’s has and not in the way that The Book Thief or others like it have. No, Cannery Row is actually not a difficult read and it’s not exactly the most gripping story. It didn’t leave me turning the pages, wanting more. In fact the only reason I kept turning page after page was mostly because I was in a window seat on a 10 hour international flight back from London and I didn’t want to beg the person next to me to let me out to grab one of the other six books I had stored in my overhead carry-on.

So I kept turning and turning and all the while I kept wondering and wondering, “Where on earth is Steinbeck going with this one?” Before Cannery Row, I had read two other books by Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Though it’s been awhile since I’ve read either of those, I still remember Steinbeck having some kind of direction, some kind of stance in both works. Cannery Row, on the other hand, seemed to have no point.

I started to think that I was missing the point and maybe I was. It had absolutely no plot. Cannery Row was just a series of seemingly meaningless events with little vignettes weaved in. When I finally landed in Dallas and was waiting on my connecting flight, I looked up the summary on and the first sentence reads as follows: “Cannery Row is a book without much of a plot.”

Phew! I breathed a sigh of when I read that. I was glad I wasn’t the only one who thought so. But the next sentence of the summary made Steinbeck’s purpose in writing the story so much clearer. It reads, “Rather, it is an attempt to capture the feeling and people of a place, the cannery district of Monterey, California, which is populated by a mix of those down on their luck and those who choose for other reasons not to live ‘up the hill’ in the more respectable area of town.”

What I failed to realize in the first pages I read was that Cannery Row is depiction of everyday life and the small stories to comprise it. There is nothing gripping, nothing thrilling about the events of everyday life. Life simply happens. Life’s events begin and end not in the dramatic way that they do in most movies, books and other forms of entertainment. They simply happen. As one thing fades into the foreground of life’s chronology another fades out but despite the subtleties of events they still form the stories, however small, of the people within the cannery community.

Cannery Row doesn’t fit into the box I thought all of Steinbeck’s works fit. There is nothing grand about it. There is nothing about this book that will attract you to it other than the author. It is an easy read worth reading if you’re simply looking for something to pass the time.