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Grammath

Travels with Charley in Search of America

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In 1960, at the age of 58 and with his health beginning to decline, John Steinbeck boarded his motor home, Rocinante (named after Don Quixote's horse), in the company of his French poodle Charley, and set off from his Long Island home on a circumnavigation of the USA. He travelled via New England, through the industrial heartlands of the mid-west and the big skies of Wisconsin and Montana, down through his native California, then back across the desert, Texas and the Deep South.

 

This was a time when the country was on the brink of momentous change, with the election of Kennedy imminent and the stirrings of the civil rights movement. However, these impinge on the narrative only occasionally but powerfully, particularly towards the end when Steinbeck encounters "the Cheerleaders", a group of protesting women outside a white Louisiana elementary school where one black girl is being bussed in.

 

Steinbeck's chief concerns seem to be environmental, as he mourns the way noone sees anything from an Interstate highway and the way Americans have opted for "cleanliness first at the expense of taste." This makes the book seem surprisingly modern on occasion. Given what a fine writer of descriptive prose he was, it is perhaps not a surprise that where this book really excels is in providing the reader with a sense of place, obviously critical for successful travel writing.

 

As well as the locations, Steinbeck captures the people well, from taciturn New Englanders through more garrulous midwesterners and the unexpected generosity he finds when Rocinante suffers a blowout in California to the conspicuous consumption and wealth of Texas and finally to the ugly racism of Louisiana.

 

This is an example of what travel literature should be like.

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Thanks, Grammath, for bringing this one to my attention. I suppose as a travel writer, I should be embarrassed that I had only the vaguest recollection of the book's existence. I will now do my best to track it down, even though, being in Bangkok, that might not be too easy. (I know, I know, I can use the Web, too).

 

 

Ron McMillan

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AND, much to my surprise the local second-hand bookstore here in my Bangkok neighbourhood DOES have a copy of Travels with Charley -- so I'm off to pick it up today. Thanks again for the pointer, G.

 

 

ron

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No problems, Ron. Hope you enjoy it. I'd be interested to hear what a "pro" such as yourself thinks of the book!

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Hubby, who has read most of Steinbeck, wasn't familiar with this one when I mentioned it a couple Sundays ago. I thoroughly enjoyed it in high school...must dig it out again, I'm sure it'll seem many times better now.

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