Cannery Row (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century)
by John Steinbeck
Reviewed by Doug Brown
When I took Invertebrate Zoology at Berkeley, in addition to the textbook there were two books that, while not required, everyone got anyway. One was Light's Manual, and the other was Between Pacific Tides. Light's Manual was the best ID guide for intertidal inverts, but it was a dry, scholarly dichotomous key. Between Pacific Tides, by Edward Ricketts, (we just called it "Ricketts") was more of a general audience book and was notable for being well written. The Rush song "Natural Science," which compares tide pools to human societies, owes a debt to Ricketts.
Ed Ricketts was a fixture in the marine biology scene of Central California, and in 1940 he befriended a local author who was developing an interest in the subject. In 1945 this author wrote a thinly veiled novel about some of the residents of Monterey, called Cannery Row. The main character, named simply Doc, was largely based on Ricketts.
Steinbeck's burgeoning interest in marine biology is demonstrated well in his descriptions of tide-pool life. "Orange and speckled and fluted nudibranchs slide gracefully over the rocks, their skirts waving like the dresses of Spanish dancers." "A wave breaks over the barrier, and churns the glassy water for a moment and mixes bubbles into the pool, and then it clears and is tranquil and lovely and murderous again." And a great passage for zoology and tide-pool geeks:
The anemones expand like soft and brilliant flowers, inviting any tired and perplexed animal to lie for a moment in their arms, and when some small crab or tide-pool Johnnie accepts the green and purple invitation, the petals whip in, the stinging cells shoot tiny narcotic needles into the prey and it grows weak and perhaps sleepy while the searing caustic digestive acids melt its body down.
It's so nice to see non-anthropomorphized nature in literature, properly red in tooth and claw.
In the 1930s and '40s, Monterey was just a rough-and-tumble fishing town, where the canneries were the primary business. Cannery Row
offers character studies of the lower levels of this little societal tide pool. Some chapters are stand-alone vignettes of life in Monterey, with characters who do not appear elsewhere in the book. One nice chapter is about an unfortunate gopher in a vacant lot. Characters appear and are then unceremoniously swept away, while others hunker down and let life's waves roll over them.
Nature lovers will appreciate Cannery Row
for the natural history and vivid descriptions of California fauna. Folks who like books with clearly realized characters who are not heroes or villains have probably already read Cannery Row
, but, if not, give it a shot (or, if so, why not read it again?). And as someone whose background was studying rattlesnakes, I have to love a novel whose last sentence is, "And behind the glass the rattlesnakes lay still and stared into space with their dusty frowning eyes."