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It was hard to understand why my mother was so insistent on taking family photos next to an old, rather run-down packing house on a grey day in Monterey, California over ten years ago. The streets mirrored the long out-of-use sardine canneries – lined with tourists and literary leeches all eager to capture their faces with the one name that mattered: Steinbeck.
We were, of course, standing on Cannery Row, a humble packing district renamed after Steinbeck’s novella.
In a time when the desire to escape our own four walls proves more prevalent than ever, Steinbeck offers us a seat at the table of his own community. It is one that is admittingly, dysfunctional, but appealing nonetheless – providing momentary escapism whilst our own versions of Cannery Row remain, for the time being, just out of reach.
It is with one foot in and one foot out of reality that the reader enters this world. Entry comes at no expense – no ticket is expected, nor an invitation required. The town exists peacefully, minding its own business, interacting organically with visitors who find their way to its door. In the same way that Alice fell into Wonderland, we find ourselves falling into the world of Cannery Row.
Steinbeck’s modestly sized paperback is seemingly written about, well, not a lot. We are led through a series of woven vignettes, following Mack and his friends, the “bums” of Cannery Row, as they attempt to “do something nice” for their friend Doc – the local marine biologist and pillar of the local community.
It is not the narrative itself that cements the novella as a classic, but it is rather the motley crew of characters that elevates it beyond an anecdotal portrayal of small-town American life. Whether caught in a farcical frog hunt, attempting to barter with local shop owners or catching twenty-one cats to gift to Doc, we follow these antics in fascination and are sent chasing the proverbial white rabbit of Steinbeck’s creation.