In fact, I think high school students across America should read Cannery Row instead of Of Mice and Men. The salty language, plus the fact that the main characters include a madam and a bunch of bums, may preclude that from ever happening, but still. Cannery Row is a book of hope and grace and love.
Golly, I love this book.
I love the humanity.
“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men” and he would have meant the same thing.”
I love the people:
- Lee Chong, who runs the grocery and of whom Steinbeck wrote, “It was deeply a part of Lee’s kindness and understanding that man’s right to kill himself is inviolable, but sometimes a friend can make it unnecessary.”
- Dora Flood, the madam who ran, “no fly-by-night cheap clip-joint but a sturdy, virtuous club, built, maintained, and disciplined by Dora who … has through the exercise of special gifts of tact and honesty, charity and a certain realism, made herself respected by the intelligent, the learned, and the kind.”
- Mack and the boys, Cannery Row’s bums, designated “the Beauties, the Virtues, and the Graces.” “What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate and bifocals? Mack and the boys avoid the trap, walk around the poison, step over the noose while a generation of trapped, poisoned, and trussed-up men scream at them and call them no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the town, thieves, rascals, bums.”
- Doc, who “tips his hat to dogs as he drives by and the dogs look up and smile at him. He can kill anything for need but would not even hurt a feeling for pleasure.”
Each person Steinbeck writes into the story is written with great love — an all-seeing love that doesn’t even attempt to hide their imperfections. It meets them where they are.
I’ve never been sure what the ultimate lesson from Of Mice and Men is. That life is tragic?
I know what the lesson of Cannery Row is. Love and grace. That’s a better lesson for our high-schoolers, even if it does involve prostitutes and bums.