Sunday, October 24, 2010

Tortilla Flat

by John Steinbeck

Thumbs up, I think.

I seem to be giving alot of partial or mostly or kind of thumbs up lately.  Some books are just not cut and dried, good or bad.

Tortilla Flat is a paisano community on the hills above Monterey, California.  Steinbeck spends several paragraphs describing what this means.  In summary, the paisanos are of mixed blood, early Spanish immigrants and Native Americans.  They inhabited the American Southwest prior to the later waves of immigrants from Northern and Western European traditions.  The paisanos live on the fringe of development and participate in modern society according to their own rules.

When Danny comes home to Tortilla Flat after his service in World War I, he finds he has inherited two homes from his grandfather.  He is a wealthy man.

The story tells how Danny opens his homes to his friends and they enjoy the good life.  They wake up when they want, they philosophize on sunny mornings on the front porch, they eat the charity food The Pirate brings each day.  They drink wine from glass jars.  And they take care of their own.  Sort of.

In the end Danny is disenchanted with this subdued lifestyle.  He engages in three weeks of dissipation, followed by a time of despondence.  The communal structure between Danny and his friends winds to a halt after Tortilla Flat comes together for a memorable night of festivities in Danny's honor.

Danny and his friends do exactly what they want at all times.  They are the protagonists. The reader cannot help but love them, in spite of their laziness, drunkenness, violence, thievery, prostitution and fornication/adultery.

Tortilla Flat was quite obviously written prior to our current age of political correctness.  The paisano community is portrayed in what we today would call a negative light.  But somehow, Steinbeck draws empathy from the reader toward such characters.  I think the book reaches a bit of Rousseauvian romanticism in me.

There are many life lessons that a reader can ponder while reading this book.  It might be useful for an ethics discussion with a upper highschool aged child.  The book is rife with fodder for such an evaluation.  Because of some of the vices touched upon, a parent should read the book first.

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