Book Review: Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck

Hello, everyone! I was able to squeeze in another book this month (mostly because it’s short), and it was a good one! My big project is winding down so hopefully I’ll be back in the swing of things soon.

I read Travels with Charley in Search of America (hereafter referred to as Travels with Charley) as part of the 12 Months of Reading Goodness challenge. November’s challenge is to read a book with a mode of transportation on the cover since Thanksgiving yields some of the busiest travel days in the US.

Travels with Charley was published in 1962. John Steinbeck was living in Long Island, NY, at the time but had just returned from living abroad for many years. Steinbeck was a writer who was really vested in what was happening in his country, as is evidenced by the social commentary that populates so many of his great books. But after being gone so long, he felt like he was out of touch with America, especially the people and the culture. As a remedy, he set out on a long, cross-country road trip in his souped up camper/truck, Rocinante (named, fittingly, for Don Quixote’s horse), with only his standard poodle, Charley, for company.

Steinbeck’s route took him up to Maine and then he headed west through the northern states, took a left when he reached Washington and then spent some time reminiscing in California, where he was born. From there, he headed east through the southern states. He completely missed the heartland, perhaps because he knew we were doing just fine.

Steinbeck thought the Badlands in the Dakotas were creepy by day, beautiful by night. I think the Badlands are beautiful regardless of time of day.

His goal was to get into the hearts and minds of average Americans, but in the end he didn’t feel like he really accomplished much of that. However, he had some good stories to tell about people he met and things he saw, most accompanied by philosophical musings and some by very humorous commentary. In fact, an alternate title for the book could have been “Deep Thoughts with John Steinbeck” because the man had a lot going on in his head. He shared his views on topics ranging from urban sprawl to the State of Texas to materialism to race relations. I guess being alone on a long road trip gives you a lot of time to think!

Except he wasn’t alone – he had Charley to keep him company. To me, Charley was the star of the show and Steinbeck was at his wittiest when he was describing his poodle. Steinbeck credited Charley very human characteristics, like wisdom, perception and dignity. He was even dignified when conducting doggy business. It’s obvious Steinbeck loved that dog and, in some ways, Travels with Charley is a tribute to a French poodle.

There was some fairly recent scandal about Travels with Charley when a journalist discovered that Steinbeck made up some of the content, meaning it isn’t purely nonfiction. Maybe I should care, but I really don’t. Whether completely true or not, it was still entertaining and made me think (although I have to admit it took me awhile to get into it). The fact that Steinbeck felt out of touch with the American people and culture particularly resonated with me, although my reason has to do with being housebound for 5 1/2 years. I also found it interesting that he often commented on issues that are still around today. Or, conversely, I was surprised to be reminded that what I thought were fairly new issues were already happening 50+ years ago.

Travels with Charley is a good, quick read and exactly what I needed to ease me back into reading mode.

What about you? What books have you been reading recently?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

P.S. – December’s challenge is to read a book that takes place during the holidays. Please join me for the last one of the year.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck

  1. As a John Steinbeck fan and as a person who loves to travel, I was excited to read Travels With Charley – one of my favorite authors and one of my favorite things to do! Unfortunately, this was not my favorite Steinbeck book nor my favorite trip. I completely agree – some of his commentary was witty and humorous. In fact, I laughed a couple of times out loud and my wife asked me “what’s so funny?” Also as you mentioned, Steinbeck’s commentary on urban sprawl, traffic, and how you can travel on a highway and see nothing really resonated with me. Things that bother me and I thought were just recent phenomenons…apparently not!

    Although I enjoyed the first half of the book – I found it the most interesting and entertaining, I thought the second half was less enjoyable. I found myself asking, what is this book really about? The portions about Texas and the South seemed like a dramatic change in tenor in the book up to that point. Instead of being about “travels” it devolved into social commentary. In a society where it seems to me that we are bombarded with social commentary, I didn’t have the patience for more.

    As you stated, Charley really stole the show and Steinbeck’s quips about him made the book worthwhile. I guess the humanization of pets is also not new. Anyone who likes dogs or has a dog will certainly enjoy his addition to the book.

    So in the end, if I decide to pick up Steinbeck again, I’ll have to fall back to The Winter of our Discontent over this one.

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    • Totally fair comments. He seemed to run out of enthusiasm about his road trip in the second half of the book. In fact, he admitted it. Nonetheless, it put me in the mood to read some of his older, classic novels.

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  2. You are absolutely amazing Michelle! I admire you so much even thought I don’t get to tell you that in person or see you very often. I love reading books and I want to read so many of the books you recommend but I just can’t seem to find the time as taking care of Tricia seems to be a 24/7 job. I need to maybe try bo

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  3. Whoops…sorry about that….Tricia hit her little bell/button and I had to get her some meds and now I lost my train of thought! That pretty much sums it all up ….just an example of why I can’t seem to sit down to a book and focus. I should try to do the books on tape but I will probably fall asleep with that and keep losing my place.

    Again, Michelle, you are such an inspiration and such a wonderful person…..just so sad I can’t get away from Tricia to see you more often. We are still struggling to find nurses and she can’t be left alone at all and she can only have RNs who can touch her line …..it is so difficult to find great people as you know.

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  4. I’m so glad you wrote about this book, Michelle. I always thought Charley was a hobo that Steinbeck picked up hitchhiking, or something like that. Now I really want to read it — what’s not to like about a good dog book! I’m in the middle of The Last Astronaut by David Wellington – another book about a lady astronaut. Guess I’m on a kick about that. Does a spaceship count as a mode of travel…? Hope you and your family have a good Thanksgiving!

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  5. Thanks, Wendy! Caregivers like you are unsung heroes. Sorry you aren’t getting any kind of a break and that Tricia’s been suffering for so long. I think about you guys often. Let us know if there is anything we can do.

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