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Cannery Row
Submitted by Trudy Schrandt (profile)

Title and Author: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Genre: Novel
Themes: Relationships; institutions; dependency; wealth; death; living life to its fullest
Class Type: Male, different age groups, most with chemical dependency or violence issues

This is the story of a group of social misfits surviving by their wits (legal and otherwise). Their lives are lived in and about the affluent community of Monterey, California. They are mere flies in the social lives that spin around them. However, they are full and dimensional characters with much to say and teach.

The novel is set at the edge of fish canneries; we meet the neighborhood grocery owner, Lee Chong and come to understand his business sense as well as his heart. It is from him that Mac and the boys procure a place to call home. Dora and her girls practice the oldest profession in the world but have connections to the community that no social worker could ever imagine. Doc's biological laboratory rounds out the grouping. Other characters are tangential to this grouping and add to or underscore the themes.

The underlying action in the novel is to the planning of a party for Doc. The false starts and missteps they make attempting to achieve this are at once funny, sad, and revealing of the human heart. Rationalizations for actions, guilt regarding motives, rehabilitation, and success are played out to their fullest. Great wealth becomes not what one has but with whom it is shared. Ultimately, we gain insights into understanding ourselves, what motivates us, and what functions to complete us.

Throughout the story each character opens a chapter of actions and reactions about decisions we make in life and situations we are presented with. Along with their consequences, we see many of our own foibles and mistakes played out.

At the end we can understand how the inhabitants of Cannery Row are "whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches [meaning] saints, and angels and martyrs and holy men."

Approach: This is a pure joy to work with. There is an immediate connection between the participants and the characters in the book. Often, however, I have found that it takes 10-15 minutes for some of the participants to admit how much they like one character or another. Although it is obvious that the characters are not the standard bearers of society, the class members aren't sure whether that is good or bad. Once they realize that the characters' "flaws" are being investigated, not to cast judgment, but to elevate their standing, they can relax and enjoy the discussion and bring quite a bit to it from their own perspectives and experiences.

I teach this towards the beginning of the session on novels as it is short, quick to read, and hilarious if you will let it be.

The book begins by defining itself to be a "poem", so I begin the class that way. We take each chapter and treat it like a stanza, or at least that is always my intent. I take special time with the Introduction as this opens the door to looking at people differently from their stereotypes. After Chapter 4 (most characters have been introduced and the setting well understood) the participants are bursting to discuss the book as a whole, and I usually allow them to take control of the order they want to discuss characters and occurrences in.

There are so many scenarios going within the story line that we are NEVER at a loss for something to discuss:

--Dora's obligations versus Dora's commitment to the community
--The old Chinaman and his encounter with Andy
--Lee Chong with his contradictions, traditions, and business sense
--Hazel and his questions
--Henri's boat, dreams, and fears
--Gay, his wife, and his choices
--The Flophouse, its acquisition, furnishings, "property rights"
--Mr. and Mrs. Malloy, their "home", and what ownership means
--The great "Frog Escapade" with Mac and the boys including the Model T, the captain, the hunt, and the "pick of the litter", and insights into relationships, and wealth (represented by the frogs)
--Frankie and the reality that some will never be able to cope
--What makes some "better than others" (Josh Billings)
--Doc's species-gathering, including the body of the woman
--Bad luck, despair, and then renewal
--Tom and Mary
--The gopher and the vacant lot

Most importantly, we have to pay attention to the different parties for Doc. Party one is an absolute disaster. Party 2 is the best to be had. We discuss:

--What made the difference?
--Who was involved? Who becomes involved before, during, and after and what does this bring to the party and the characters?
--Why was the planning so crucial?
--How is Doc different?

Throughout the discussion, many questions beg to be asked, and I try to work them in as the opportunity presents itself:

--What is the symbolic importance of collecting?
--How is success defined?
--Who is the most successful: Doc, Mack, Dora, Lee Chong? How?
--What is the function of violence (suicides, deaths, and even in the party mode)?
--What does it mean to be a part of a neighborhood or a community?
--How do families and marriages function?
--Who are the most important people in a character's life?
--Why might family be a troublesome concept?
--Doc claims that it is easier to lie than tell the truth. Mack hates a liar. What is the difference here?
--What are the family and social issues surrounding drinking: 2 parties, Dora's policies, Lee Chong, Mac's marriage, drunk and the pole sitter, 1st and 2nd parties, Old Tennis Shoe, etc.

A word of caution: It is very easy to make this a discussion of the evils of alcohol and, by extension, addiction. While this certainly is a part of the story, I believe it is only a small part. The varying themes are far too important to lose sight of substance abuse as the controlling issue. These characters are not the pillars of society or even its middle-class. They are the dregs of society, BUT it behooves us to look at them through the glasses that Steinbeck offers and consider what makes then honorable men. They have a lot to teach, or maybe we have a lot to learn.

We never finish completely, and I have to watch the clock to make sure that it is wrapped up before we end the session.

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