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Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

Hello everyone, and happy belated fourth of July from the nation’s capital!  I’m Elizabeth, and in honor of the holiday, I thought I would choose something a little patriotic for my first book review: John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America.

When my friend decided to organize a summer book club, I was excited to join.  I hadn’t had a chance to be in a book club since I moved to DC.  The theme of the book club is road trip memoirs, and Travels with Charley was the book for June.  I was initially hesitant, since I had read several of Steinbeck’s novels for English class assignments and, to say the least, he is not my favorite author.  Fortunately for me, this memoir feels very different than Steinbeck’s novels.  It was written late in the author’s career, and for the most part it is less serious than his other work.

In 1962, John Steinbeck decided to take a road trip around America.  He traveled in a camper truck and took one of his dogs, a poodle named Charley, for company.  Starting from his home in New York, he travelled up to Maine, and then across the northern states.  He continued through his former home state, California, and then back through the south.  Steinbeck had already achieved a lot of success by this point in his career and was considered a quintessentially “American” author, but he was concerned that he was falling out of touch with the “real” America, partly because he had been living in New York for a long time and partly because of all the social changes that were taking place at that time in our history.  The point of his road trip was to rediscover the country he had made a career of writing about.

I particularly admired Steinbeck’s prose, especially the descriptions of some of the places he visited.  Thanks to this book, I definitely want to see Wisconsin and Montana someday soon.  As a Californian, I also enjoyed his descriptions of the Redwoods.  Another thing that stands out about the book is that he records very specific interactions with individuals that he met in his travels and then reflects on them, instead of trying to give the reader a more generalized picture.  I appreciated that.  A book like this could easily have become a series of generalizations about Americans and the states they live in, but by writing down small slices of experience, Steinbeck made this book a lot more honest and enjoyable to read.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is planning a road trip (or maybe just daydreaming about one).  I would also recommend it to people who are fans of Steinbeck’s novels, because you get a chance to see a completely different side of the author.  And if you are interested in the civil rights movement during the 1960’s, pay special attention to the last part of the book, where Steinbeck and Charley travelled through the American South.

Personally, I would give this book three and a half stars.  I would probably reread it if I was ever planning a road trip, and I would definitely recommend it to a friend!  ★★★1/2

I borrowed Travels with Charley from my local library, but you can also find it here.

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