“The World Was Hers For The Reading”: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

In 1943, Betty Smith published what would become her most famous work and one of the most representative pieces of American literature. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* was an instant hit, at the time being only surpassed by Gone With the Wind * in sales.

The novel narrates the life of Francie Nolan and her family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Francie’s parents are both first-generation Americans, of Austrian and Irish ascendance, which is one of the aspects that mirror the life of Betty Smith, herself the daughter of German immigrants. The social dynamics of the Brooklyn described in the novel are greatly determined by nationalities and religious beliefs, so the Nolans live in a mainly Catholic and Irish neighbourhood, Catholicism being also an important part of Francie’s upbringing and it’s present throughout the novel.

The way in which A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is narrated is fairly traditional, but has various peculiarities. We are first introduced to Francie: she’s hiding in a corner between the fire escape and a window of her building, out of sight, a book in hand, observing the world around her. This first description is already telling us a lot about the protagonist, who is six years old at the beginning of the novel. We then are taken through a series of passages about every day Williamsburg and are introduced to Francie’s family: her little brother Neeley, her father Johnnie, and her mother Katie. Some pages later the narrative goes back to Katie and Johnnie’s youth. From here, the novel often goes back and forth in time to tell of events or give other character’s backgrounds. Betty Smith is also the kind of narrator that actively introduces her voice to assess and give opinions about the event’s she’s narrating.

So what is the story? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a book about poverty and hardship, but it is not a moral made out of poor people. Being partly biographic (Francie Nolan and the author even share the same birthday, 15th of December), Smith manages to include all the hard and uncomfortable aspects of poverty without glorifying or martyrising her characters. The result is an amazing and endearing set of characters whose personalities and stories are not entirely about their social circumstances.

It could be said the story focuses on how education and sacrifice can better lives—certainly Francie’s love for reading is a great part of her character’s arc throughout the novel—, but if I had to define the novel I would say it is about dignity and character, about resilience and hope, about the universality of human experience and the search for beauty. It is also a book about a people who read, and I think those are usually my favourites.

The highlight of the book is, of course, Francie Nolan. What a character! She is a voracious reader, a quiet observer, a determined and stubborn girl. Her family is far from perfect, her father is an alcoholic and her mother supports them all by cleaning houses. Growing up, Francie goes through a lot—her family can barely afford food, she suffers bullying and harassment, has to quit school to work, is told by a teacher not to write about her family for it is “shameful”.

She is a lonely, shy child, and yet she exhilarates so much life through her reading and writing, her feelings and observations. She is one of those character’s whose internal life is far richer than what their appearances might give out, which is perhaps why I sympathised so much with her. One of my favourite parts of the book is actually a description of Francie:

“She was made up of more, too. She was the books she read in the library. She was the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly […] She was all of these things and something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living from day to day. It was something that had been born into her and her only—the something different from anyone else in the two families. It was what God or whatever is His equivalent puts into each soul that is given life—the one different thing such as that which makes no two fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.”

At the very beginning of the novel, Francie observes a tree. It is a small, weak-looking kind of tree that grows right outside her building, out of concrete. Not a beautiful tree, perhaps, but a strong one. The whole novel then revolves around the similarities between Francie and this tree, their similarities as resilient beings, gathering strength from scarcity and hardship.

“Who wants to die? Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong.”

And Francie is strong, but she is strong in quiet ways. As it happens with many readers, she dreams too much and expects much out of life: she wants to experience everything books have told her exists, she wants to be, in her words, “drunk with life”. This is perhaps why every description of things from her perspective is so lively, from a bakery to a firework show.

“But she didn’t want to recall things. She wanted to live things—or as a compromise, re-live rather than reminisce. She decided to fix this time in her life exactly the way it was this instant. Perhaps that way she could hold on to it as a living thing and not have it become something called a memory.”

For me, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the kind of book that says, okay, these are the cards you were dealt, what the hell are you gonna do with them? how’re you gonna make it into an interesting story? No self-pity in it. I sure saw many things of myself in Francie Nolan and many familiar things in her family, that is perhaps why I enjoyed the book so much. I also loved how it approaches reading and literature.

From the moment Francie learns to read, she becomes a voracious reader and then a writer, and throughout the novel the book poses important questions about both: do we read to escape life, or to have a bit more of it? What is really the purpose of fiction, why do we need it so much? To help us cope with living, or to allow us to live more, if only vicariously?

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book every day as long as she lived.”

I think we read and write for both reasons. What are your thoughts on that? Have you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? I am currently reading A Discovery of Witches* by Deborah Harkness, but I am afraid I’m not enjoying it that much. I took a break from it in which I read V for Vendetta*. That was a wild ride. I’ll finish this post with another beautiful quote from Betty Smith.

“‘Dear God,’ she prayed, ‘let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry… have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me sincere—be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.'”

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“Trouble with mice is you always kill’em”: Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

In 1937, John Steinbeck published what would be considered by many his finest novel, Of Mice and Men*. It is a book, I hear, that appears in many basic courses of American Literature. It is also an introduction to Steinbeck’s California and its many injustices, its changing landscapes, burning suns and many struggles at the beginnings of the 20th century. Also, it is only a hundred pages long and composed mainly of dialogue.

It was only this year that I was introduced to Mr Steinbeck’s work. I read Travels with Charley in Search of America* in January, then East of Eden* in February and The Grapes of Wrath* in March. Needless to say, I am fascinated with Steinbeck and very surprised about the fact that I didn’t read him for any of my university modules, not even for North American Literature. But I am trying to repair the damage here, so Of Mice and Men seemed like the obvious choice. What can I even say about this book? It is heartbreaking in a way only Steinbeck could achieve, masterful in its narrative and its characters, engrossing and gripping, somewhat of a punch in the gut. It seems to be a more mature work than both East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath even though it was published before both (and even though East of Eden will always be my favourite).

“As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.” 

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

I know this is a very common high school read, so I probably won’t spoil anything here. Basically, it is the story of two friends: George, who is small and cunning, and Lennie, who is big, strong and has an undescribed mental disability. George takes care of Lennie, but Lennie’s strenght often gets them both in trouble because he’s not aware of it. Lennie also has a characteristic trait: he loves to pet soft animals, such as mice, but he often kills them involuntarily.

When we meet them, George has found a new job for the two of them at a ranch close to Salinas. The ranch is okay and Lennie is even promised a puppy, but things get complicated when the son of the ranch owner, Curley, picks at Lennie. In addition to this, his wife is always flirting with the ranch labourers. Anyway, George has a plan for him and Lennie, whose only relative died and left him in charge of George: if they can handle a season of work, then they’ll have enough money to buy their own piece of land. The topic of lower classes looking for a piece of land in the still unexploited California and the relations drawn between the state and the Promised Land is common throughout Steinbeck’s work, the impossible achievement of the American Dream:

“Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head. They’re all the time talkin’ about it, but it’s jus’ in their head.” 

This small book is really perfect, every word seems to be in place, every dialogue has a cadence and rhythm that brings the world of ranch labourers to life in just a couple of pages. Every character exhilarates life and a rich personality of which we learn through other characters and a few, scant lines of description.

What is probably more interesting about the book is its structure, that of Matryoshka dolls: events repeat themselves in different layers, over and over. For example, when Lennie kills a mouse at the beginning for petting it too hard, you kind of expect this will happen with the ranch puppies, and later when Curley’s wife mentions she has really soft hair, well, you see what is coming. Another story that repeats itself is that of the dog, although here the circle is broken by choice (a very important topic in Steinbeck, too: free will). Candy, the oldest labourer, can’t bring himself to shoot his own dog, his companion for so long, and other labourer does it for him. Candy can’t get over this and regrets not having done it himself, “I oughtta of shot that dog myself, George. I shouldn’t oughtta of let no stranger shoot my dog.” Shooting a friend or let strangers do it is a choice George faces later, in the tragic ending of the novel. Also, the plot of the novel is advanced by hints continually, which is why there is so much tension in it. Of Mice and Men is read compulsively like a thriller, you really get a sense of what is going to happen, yet you have to keep reading.

The theme of the novel reminded me of East of Eden for its appraisal of free will and choice. There is always a search for the motivations of people in Steinbeck’s works, a try to understand the meanness and evil that we’re capable of, but there is often a flicker of light—friendship, love, sacrifice— found at the heart of the smallest acts.

Finally, who is the protagonist of the novel? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one since I’m still thinking about it. Even though I think the main theme is friendship—the relationship between George and Lennie—, I believe the main character is George. They are both unlucky, tragic characters: Lennie seems doomed to kill everything he loves, and George seems doomed to have all his plans ruined by his friendship to Lennie, he promised his dying aunt he would take care of him. But George does have a choice, and he chooses to stay with Lennie over and over again, even if it costs him his jobs. It’s a heartbreaking piece of literature, definitely one that I’ll be thinking about for a while.

Have you read it? What did you think of it? If not, I couldn’t recommend the book more! I just finished another American classic I loved, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn* by Betty Smith.

Right now I’m stepping away from heartbreak for a while and enjoying In a Sunburned Country* by Bill Bryson.

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An Age for Civil Disobedience

This a continued rant about our society and Henry David Thoreau.

In 1846, Henry David Thoreau was incarcerated for not paying his taxes. He owed the government six years of taxes, but he refused to pay because he knew the money would go to two causes the was against: the Mexican war and slavery. Today we mostly hear of millionaires that avoid paying taxes to get richer, but it’s rare to hear someone making a statement out of not paying taxes. Thoreau did, however, and the night he spent in prison was the motif of one of his best pieces of writing. “Civil disobedience”, as most of Thoreau’s essays, resonates too much with the issues we face today.

In this essay, Thoreau defends his actions arguing that he could not possibly support through his taxes something that he knows in his heart is wrong. But the essay goes further than that, he proposes nobody should abide a law that is wrong, he dismantles the myth of the law-abiding citizen and exposes the moral failing that subordinating one’s conscience to law or social codes represents. Generally speaking, that is what civil disobedience is about: acting according to our own moral code—which, according to Thoreau is not arbitrary, but transcendetal and and valid for all—, whether it contradicts or not the laws.

“Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.” 

Democracy

This might sound problematic if we think of democratically elected governments. But I do not believe that democracy is incompatible with the “higher laws” Thoreau suggests; we must remember that democracy in his time—and still in our time, in many places— excluded women and people of colour from political participation. It is not incompatible with democracy, but it is only possible to act thus in a democratic system in which people are free to choose, and this implies they’re educated. Anyhow, Thoreau is probaby right in deeming democracy as a transitory system, a step towards a form of government in which the state is not above the individuals, but instead recognizes them as the real source of power.

Moreover, the essay poses some uncomfortable questions: Is it right to support a democratically elected government even when we believe its actions go against the dignity of some people?

“Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” 

Consumerism

Another issue Thoreau addresses in his essay is the unwillingness that rich people show towards disobeying laws that are unfair. He argues that money is a way in which the government secures the allegiance of the rich, for they’re bound to be loyal to whoever allows their riches to grow. In our times, however, the monster is bigger, more dangerous and complex; it is no longer the government but the corporations, the stocks, thousands of people we can’t see and are more comfortable to call “the system”, which give and take value from properties and goods. The tiny percentage of people who are super rich are mostly supportive of these systems of exclusion and dehumanisation, not to their fellow human beings and certainly not to themselves.

In our times, the disobedience Thoreau poses is not only about taxes, it’s about disobeying the industries that tell us that buy more is to be better, at the expense of the half of the world that suffers for it, at the expense of global warming and pollution. To be disobedient would be to say no to the fashion industry and the plastic industry and the TV and Netflix industries, even at the cost of being uncomfortable or an outcast.

Utopy or possibility?

So why is civil disobedience necessary? Its importance lies in the need for coherence between our actions and and our thoughts, between our lifestyle and what we know to be right. For Thoreau, every one is capable of listening is himself to a higher truth, and acting according to it might sometimes go against laws, regulations or social codes.

Ideally, every individual would be capable of determining what is good or evil without being subordinated to a government or religion. The ideal role of the state would be to regulate affairs between individuals, but it would not hold any authority in itself: every individual would be capable of acting, thinking and expressing in the way he chooses, but he would also have every tool to form an autonomus conscience, aka education and time for introspection.

“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law,

so much as for the right.” 

It could sound impossible and anarchic, but Thoreau is not talking about the kind of individualism we are familiar with today. He is nor for “every man for himself”, but rather for “every man for the greatest good, for he knows in his heart what this greater good is”. Thoreau’s approach is very similar to that of Ralph Waldo Emerson—his mentor: they both propose an individual search—for truth, justice and meaning— that goes beyond the limitations of culture and governments. In his essay “Experience”, Emerson also speaks of individualism as the source of good, and argues that the best access to knowledge and innovation is through personal experience. Both texts are about individuals that dare to go beyond old conventions in search of a higher knowledge, a better way of living for them and the other living creatures.

Lives Without Principle: Thoreau and Our Complex Times

As you may know, recently I finally got down to reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Thoureau had fascinated me since I studied some of his essays in university, mostly because I believe he’s one of the few thinkers who really put his money where his mouth was: his lifestyle was always coherent with his words.

What Thoreau had in mind when he decided to live in the woods in Massachussets could not be more relevant in our times. Reading Walden made me want to revisit the first essay I read by him: “Life Without Principle”. What he writes there is very relevant in our turbulent times.

Henry David Thoreau

In “Life Without Principle”, Thoreau speaks of how America evolved after the Independence, making industry and commerce its main focus and pushing art and philosophy to the side. What Thoreau defends agains this way of living is the idea of working for something we can actually find true to our selves. Only a job that doesn’t ask of us to look away from our dignity and that of those around us can lead us to the truth, a truth we find looking into ourselves.

Every day I see it more and more that my friends and acquaintances start working at things they don’t believe in and don’t even enjoy, just to get a check every month. And it pays off, I guess, if you can live your life numbly five days a week to get a nice holiday every year. Every Monday on social media I realize most people I know do not enjoy what they do, some of them even work for companies or organisations they know are not good for our society or our environment, but their goal is to make it to Friday and save some money and have some fun and hopefully find a job they enjoy more, or retire young.

What Thoreu would find problematic about this lifestyle is that it turns people into slaves. Thinking, for example, about the fast-fashion industry and how many jobs it generates—from CEOs and accountants, to people in retail, to people in actual sweatshops—: thousands and thousands of people working towards a goal that is doing more harm than good. But they all are capable to look away from the issue and from themselves: for a check that will pay a condo, a rent, food for their families. Such labour, a job that requires you to numb your conscience, induces a kind of slavery—slavery to consumerism— that makes it harder for people to seek true meaning in their lives.

“What is it to be born free and not to live free? What is the value of any political freedom, but as a means to moral freedom? Is it a freedom to be slaves, or a freedom to be free, of which we boast?”

Henry David Thoreau, “Life Without Principle”

It is a vicious circle, and it doesn’t only apply harmful industries, the same can be said of banks or political organisations or what have you. For in order to survive, one must give up their individuality; in order to achieve economic freedom, one compromises his or her youth and strenght and, worst of all, conscience, in the hope that one day one will be free to do as one pleases. Thoreau points out examples such as the Gold Rush and the trade of slaves, but we can find plenty of contemporary examples.

But how can we end this? You’re probably wondering that now and I wondered that when I read the essay. And Thoreau says: “I do not make an exorbitant demand, surely.” Is it doable then? Could we all, each one of us, work at something we not only enjoy, but respect because it makes us better and the world around us better? I believe we can, that at any rate we can begin now to change and to think twice if that which bring us immediate joy or comfort—a paycheck or some jeans— is really good for ourselves and those around us. I don’t think it is easy, but I think it is possible. Hard as hell because it’s easier to switch your conscience off from 9 to 5 than struggling 24/7 to make ends meet. But it’s possible.

Thoreau would say we should treat our minds as something sacred, that is also a great start. It is hard to think of these changes in the big picture, specially because there are many people who do not have a choice, but what about us who have the time to write and read blogs and books and use social media? It is not an exorbitant demand, indeed, if we start with small changes. What Thoreau would ask of us, I dare say, is that we follow the beat of our own drum, that we dare disagree and struggle if we find that our circumstances do not agree with who we are, that we break the rules if we find that the rules offend our dignity, or the dignity of our brothers and sisters, as human beings.

“At any rate, I might pursue some path, however solitary and narrow and crooked, in which I could walk with love and reverence. Wherever a man separates from the multitude, and goes his own way in this mood, there indeed is a fork in the road, though ordinary travellers may see only a gap in the paling. His solitary path across lots will turn out the higher way of the two.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Life Without Principle”
Into the Wild

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“We do not take a trip; a trip takes us”

John Steinbeck did not only write some of the most acclaimed pieces of American fiction. He also possessed the rare talent of making any account of events compelling, a knack for turning even the slightest observation into a riveting reflection of something vaster and much more complex.

In 1962, Steinbeck published his travel memoir, Travels with Charley in Search of America, an account of a road trip he took alongside his blue poodle, Charley, across several states of the US, from Maine to Texas, in search of “americanness”, were such thing to exist.

Steinbeck left Sag Harbor, New York, on an all-equipped truck called Rocinante, with Charley as his only company, on a project that would last three months. He was to go out, talk to as many people as he could, see as much as he could, and come back to write about what he had learned of his country.

However, the real inspiration for it was the itch to get going, to leave, the need to travel and move and see other places, a feeling Steinbeck is familiar with: “When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.”

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Steinbeck by Sonya Noskowiak, 1935

As it often happens when one gets in a car with a full tank and nothing else but the urge to being someplace else, an adventure began. Rocinante took our protagonists on a quest that would prove both impossible and revealing, a journey through the forests of Maine, the redwoods in Oregon, the trailer parks in North Dakota, bear encounters in Yosemite and unlikely friendships in the Mojave Desert.

This is a wonderful book, a memoir, yes, but also an exercise in writing as a means of discovering something else, something more, in what has been seen, felt, done, traveled. For many writers, the act of writing is an aftermath of experience, a way of understanding experience. And it is so for Steinbeck, who does not try to recreate the experience of his journey, but rather describes everything around it, hinting too at the impossibility of describing the “americanness” he set out to find.

The simple writing of the book was for me a reminder that a story is by no means an experience, but a way to approach experience. That is perhaps why we travel, because during the trip itself, nothing is a story and everything is an experience. Afterwards, we cannot access that experience —”I can’t even imagine the forest colors when I am not seeing them”, writes Steinbeck—but we can narrate it and give it new tints and colors of understanding and comprehension. perhaps only then we can realize its importance.

This book is one of the best non-fictions I have ever read, and I thought I would just point out some topics I loved.

On the nature of traveling

“Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

The book begins with Steinbeck’s urge to move, to be somewhere else, to travel. As the plot advances, Steinbeck points out that he found the same need in people he met along the road, people who looked with a bit of jealousy his truck and the freedom that represented being “on the move”. Why do we travel? Could it be there’s a biological need, a nomadic gene buried deep in us still? We move for various reasons, but the kind of traveling this book is about is not the one motivated by “sensible” reasons —a job,  better opportunities, an annual holiday—, but the one that is unexplainable, an urge for adventure that begins not with a destination in mind but with a desire to move. The way Steinbeck poses the questions that come with traveling reveal many aspects about our culture that are directly related to this quest for adventure.

a journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. and all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. we find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip;

On disposable culture

One of the things that I found specially interesting was the mentions of consumerism and the overuse of plastic. The book was published in 1962 and Steinbeck had already detected the first consequences of the packaging culture, the first outlets of one of the most pressing problems we are facing today, fifty years later: “Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.”

It is not only the dumpsters but the rapid growth of cities that Steinbeck marvels at, small towns turned into great urban areas, factories replacing suburbs. The cultural causes and implications of our environmental problems are sometimes overlooked; the links between “the American dream”, fast-food chains, fast fashion and cultural homogenization and our environmental challenges are something worth examining not only to understand but to better demand and think of solutions that, to be effective, have to involve a bigger change and even a complete rethinking of our economic systems. On this note, Steinbeck writes, “I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction”.

On writing about places

“What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.”

This is a quote I’ll have in mind every time I write about a place. Have you ever taken a trip with someone just to come back with completely different experiences and opinions about it? Or have you perhaps revisited a place to find it a disappointment from what you remembered, or surprisingly better than you remembered it? Perhaps the most interesting part of traveling is that you take you wherever you go, your eyes and your ears, your feet to tread the earth, your own mouth to taste the food.

A written account of a place can just account for a place in a certain time, under certain conditions, and that’s why both traveling and writing are endless expeditions. One can never know a place completely, much less write about it completely, and that’s the thrill of it: “So much there is to see, but our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world.”

On the experience of nature

“Can it be that we do not love to be reminded that we are very young and callow in a world that was old when we came into it? And could there be a strong resistance to the certainty that a living world will continue its stately way when we no longer inhabit it?”

These questions were motivated by the redwoods in Oregon. It is easy to be fond of nature when it is already tamed by culture—a garden, a park—, but there’s an element of uneasiness in being out in the wilderness. We have come to think of nature as a “pretty thing” to be taken care of, but isn’t nature a dangerous thing? We have our cities and our homes against it and we still fear it, but so many of us are still drawn to it, much in the way the early romantics were, not to groomed trees and rose gardens, but to cliffs and rivers, to thunder and lightning, dark forests, to things that live and behave in a way that is for us both strange and familiar, that frightens us but of which we can still sense a part in ourselves.

a journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. and all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. we find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip;

 

On the impossibility of really knowing the place we come from

The purpose of Steinbeck’s trip was to find what his homeland was, who his people were. When introducing myself to people from different parts of the world, there’s always talk of “traditional” Mexican things—the food, the dress, somehow people expect you to drink tequila and know how to dance—. At such times I feel like I’ve perhaps failed as a Mexican, for I cannot see what these things have to do with me. The things that connect me to my homeland are much simpler and much more complicated, and have nothing to do with flags or national anthems. They’re more about the mountains and the climate, a passionate defensiveness, an easy laughter.

Whenever I go too far north or too far south I find that the people there are very different from me, but on a closer look, I see they also share things with me, small things like gestures, stubbornness, a playful dispositions. There must be something, something about the land and its history, something I will never be able to rightfully put down because it’s too close to me. Reading Travels with Charley I felt like I was not alone in this defeat: “From start to finish I found no strangers. If I had, I might be able to report them more objectively. But they are my people and this my country. If I found matters to criticize and to deplore, they were tendencies equally present in myself.”

I found in this book hundreds of things to think about and such a pleasure to read. It is a genuinely fine piece of writing, an essay much in the Montaigne style, mixing personal anecdotes with other reflections, everything connected together by a story, a story about two friends on a road trip. Honestly, stories don’t get much better than that.