Marsella’s Travels With Steinbeck

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[Originally posted October 18, 2011]

Book club was great last Saturday. “The Historian” was a love-hate book it seems. Most thought it was too long and too detailed with historical data. Others like me ate it up. I heard there will be a sequel and am not surprised with the flat ending on this one. I love extreme reactions to books like this because the discussions are so amazing. Next month’s choice is a young adult selection called “I am the Messenger” which will rock the boat on discussion too. Can hardly wait!

I finally finished “Travels with Charley In Search of America” by John Steinbeck. What a blast from the past. This was written in 1962. Steinbeck equips a hefty truck with a camper and a French Poodle called Charley. He names it Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse and sets off to reconnect with America at the age of 58. I read this book in the seventies when I was a teen and don’t remember it being that remarkable. Mostly because it was about life happening at that time…boring to a teen. But now! Whew, the memories it stirred up. I was surprised at how old he sounded when referring to himself and his career.Almost in his dotage, which I can’t relate to (at almost) the same age. He had packed in a whole lot of living by then. He is almost like a journalist looking for a story, he keeps to the smaller country roads and avoids the freeways unless forced, looking for the soul of America. He was well stocked with spirits which he generously shared around his campfire. It brought me back to the free and easy consumption of alcohol of that time before Mother’s Against Drunk Driver’s (MADD) came on the scene.

Charley is his devoted Standard Poodle that provides a certain mushiness to Mr. Steinbeck’s crustiness. You can’t resist him. The scene with the bears in Yellowstone is not to be missed nor his master playing doctor to the ailing pet. The first thirds of the book meanders and the last third walloped me. He visits the south and witnesses a young black girls introduction to desegregation. It was chilling to see where we have come from and still visit much too often. The ending finds him in his old neighborhood, Salinas and Monterey. This man knew the territory of his past but found it hard to reconcile with the present. From canneries reaking of fish and the waste washing up on beaches of decades past to the ultra rich and shopping meccas Monterey and Carmel have become. Hard to imagine them as sleepy little villages full of colorful characters. But gratefully Steinbeck immortalized them forever in “East of Eden”, “Cannery Row” and “Tortilla Flats”. It was time well spent getting inside Mr. Steinbecks head for the journey. When you want to take a drive check out “Travels with Charley” Happy Reading! Marsella

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