Friday, August 19, 2011
Steinbeck Tour: Sweet Thursday
by John Steinbeck
Sweet Thursday is the sequel to Cannery Row, one of my favorite of Steinbeck’s books. I’ve read the epic masterpieces, like East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath. I’ve read the shorter morality tales, like Of Mice and Men and The Pearl. Yet after all of those brilliant works, my favorites remain his road trip memoir, Travels with Charley, and Cannery Row. I may get more depth and inner turmoil from his other works, but these are the ones I relate, the ones I want to return to.
Sweet Thursday quickly made its way to that top bracket as I read it. Steinbeck takes us back to Cannery Row and all of our favorite characters. We return shortly after the end of World War II and learn that Doc has been away, serving his country and Mack has been holding down the fort. The grocer, Lee Chong, is long gone and there are some new characters in the town.
Steinbeck gives us some of my favorite literary characters in this book. Doc, Mack and the others won a place in our hearts in Cannery Row, but the new additions are just as wonderful. There’s a selfish con artist named Old Jingleballicks and a Mexican man who runs the grocery store named Joseph and Mary (often referred to as J and M). Suzy, a young woman looking for guidance, provides a unique spark to the story. Her transformation throughout the book is one of the most rewarding I’ve read, because you can’t help but root for her.
I loved that Steinbeck didn’t throw Doc and Suzy together immediately. It felt so right that Suzy had a chance to get her life together before ending up with him. She needed to find her own balance and believe in herself before committing to another person. Once she had a room of her own, she finally had pride in herself and once she had that, she had something to offer someone else.
Of course, you can’t forget Hazel, one of Steinbeck’s greatest creations. He’s naïve and sweet, and devoted to his friends. When he’s in trouble or being taken advantage of, his friends step up and we see the best in everyone around him as they protect their friend. Hazel becomes a key player in this novel. He’s put to the test as he tries to work out the best way to help Doc, the man he admires so much.
One of my favorite chapters is called “One Night of Love,” which chronicles Suzy and Doc’s first date. The two couldn’t be more different, but there’s an unexpected sweetness that we witness when they both let their guards down. That private moment is beautiful.
Sweet Thursday was everything I hoped it would be. It’s touching, funny and profound in an unexplainably simple way. It makes you wish you lived on Cannery Row and could share a beer with Doc and his friends. It reminds you of the goodness the lies within every person and the fact that sometimes you just need the right situation to bring it out.
“I love true things,” said Doc. “Even when they hurt. Isn’t it better to know the truth about oneself?”
“S-l-o-w-ness it gave meaning to everything. It made everything royal.”
“No one knows how greatness comes to a man. It may lie in his blackness, sleeping, or it may lance into him like those driven fiery particles from outer space. These things, however, are known about greatness: need gives it life and puts it in action; it never comes without pain; it leaves a man changed, chastened, and exalted at the same time – he can never return to simplicity.”
I read this as part of the Steinbeck Classic Circuit Tour.