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This review is from: Travels with Charley: In Search of America (Paperback)
“Travels with Charlie” is the delightful narrative by a master story teller of his 1962 journey across America with his pet poodle, Charlie. Feeling a need to become reacquainted with America, Steinbeck purchased a custom made mobile home which he outfitted, by his own admission, to excess, before setting out on his travels. Although warned that his fame and familiarity would prevent him from maintaining his anonymity, Steinbeck was able to meet America at its own level. From sea to sea he was recognized only by friends and relatives. This anonymity permitted him to drift in and out of American society, tasting and testing, interacting and remembering. From New England to California and back to New York, we are admitted to his conversations with taciturn Yankees and French-Canadian migrant agricultural workers. Traveling west, we read of border guards, the representatives of the government bureaucracy, state specific highway designations and Steinbeck’s observations of topography. His roadside visit with an actor and his entertainment by rich friends in Texas provide a sharp contrast in outlooks and behavior of different Americans. During his return to his hometown of Salinas, California, Steinbeck learns the truth that “you can’t go back home again.” Home has changed, his friends have changed, and Steinbeck had changed. It is sad, but true.
Steinbeck dreaded the South but knew that he could not be avoided. Traveling in 1962, Steinbeck saw some of the dramatic events of the Civil Rights movement while he sampled the prevailing racial attitudes of Southerners of the day.
At the start, Steinbeck was looking to become reacquainted with America. I was hoping that the would finish with some wise conclusions gleaned from his experience. He did conclude that Americans were more united as Americans than they were divided as residents of different regions. He is amazed to find the degree to which diverse immigrant groups have amalgamated into a new nationality in less than two centuries. I passed this on to a distant cousin in France with whom I have been discussing themes in American and French history. Beyond this, we are left to draw our own conclusions from the facts reported.
I wonder how many of the people to whom Steinbeck referred have read and recognized themselves in this book. How many of us, who did not meet Steinbeck, see ourselves or our acquaintances reflected in its pages?
This a a hard book to put down, so don’t try. Pick it up, free your mind and enjoy “Travels with Charlie.”