In high school, I barely escaped an aversion to anything written by John Steinbeck. To this day, high school students tell me that the only works of Steinbeck that are assigned them are The Red Pony, The Pearl, and, especially, Of Mice and Men. Fine books, every one, but so depressing. What saved Steinbeck's reputation for me was a fortuitous and non-curricular encounter with his hilarious novel The Short Reign of Pippin IV. This book is closer in tone to farce than philosophy, to The Mouse that Roared than The Old Man and the Sea.
This summer, I seized the opportunity to study Steinbeck's Cannery Row with a group of students. They loved it! The characters were alive to them as we read the pages together. The themes--that we can find beauty and nobility where we normally overlook them and that people are as interdependent as the plants and animals in an ecology--were recognized and appreciated. The controversial elements--for example, that a house of prostitution was a pillar of the community--made for interesting discussions. When I told the class that there was a sequel to the book, Sweet Thursday, they were intrigued.
I had never read Sweet Thursday myself, though. I finally bought a copy and finished it last week. It's not as good as Cannery Row, but it's still better than most novels. It's interesting to hold it up to Cannery Row for comparison.
Cannery Row, as the opening paragraph makes clear, is about a place. It's a love song to the community that defines that place. However, Sweet Thursday tells us that the place was ruined after World War II. The fishery it depended on disappeared. Some important members of the community died. Some people changed and, we are told, being changed is similar to being dead.
If that specific place is ruined and that specific community is gravely wounded, then what remains for Sweet Thursday to celebrate? Something not confined to a specific place or community. Something universal. As the book title and four chapter titles tell us, Sweet Thursday is about a time. Unlike a place, a time is available to anyone, in any place. The book, therefore, overcomes the tragic changes to a place and to people whom Steinbeck loves.