Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, revisited

A new book examines six decades of transformation in Monterey, California.

 

Monterey Bay in 1973.
Herbert Maruska/CC Flickr

If a city’s planners are savvy, they’ll adapt to the ebb and flow of natural resources with entrepreneurial vision. When the logging industry collapsed in Oakridge, Oregon, the town reinvented itself as a haven for mountain bikers. Downtown Tacoma, Washington — once shattered by depression and crime — now revolves around the Museum of Glass made famous by artist Dale Chihuly, who was born in the city.

Monterey, California, represents one of the most successful examples of the resuscitation of a struggling city. The rough-and-tumble fish-processing town made famous by John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row is all but unrecognizable today as a glitzy tourist destination — a transformation that Lindsey Hatton explores in her debut novel, Monterey Bay. In a story that begins in 1940 and concludes in 1998, she chronicles the process of gentrification and its various losses and gains, both economic and social.

Her aged protagonist, Margot Fiske, looks back on the Cannery Row of her youth: “And here in the weeds and ice plants, in the rusty metal that smells salty in the sun and bloody in the fog, she dreams of everything that has slipped away.”

Hatton’s story begins when the 15-year-old Margot arrives in Monterey at the start of World War II with her father, an entrepreneur who specializes in “industrial transformations.” He purchases the largest cannery in town, with intentions that his daughter believes to be nefarious, and he orders her to assist an influential marine biologist with his tidepool collections.

The biologist in question, Ed Ricketts, plays a pivotal role in both Steinbeck and Hatton’s books. “He dug himself into Cannery Row to an extent not even he suspected. He became the fountain of philosophy and science and art,” Steinbeck writes of the real-life Ricketts, an expert on intertidal ecology. His lab and marine biology supply house on the Row hosted salon-style debates with the likes of writer Henry Miller, mythologist Joseph Campbell and composer John Cage.

In Hatton’s book, Ricketts functions primarily as Margot’s love interest. He stitches up her head wound after a fall and then proceeds to seduce her on the single bed in his lab.

But he also becomes the inspiration for Margot’s later coming of age as an environmental entrepreneur. When her father dies, leaving her the old cannery along with his fortune, the adult Margot decides to transform it into the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “If she gave enough of herself, this town would love her even more than it loved its own children,” Hatton writes, hinting that Margot built the aquarium largely in homage to Ricketts, who died in 1948.

In Cannery Row, Steinbeck portrayed the region in all its dingy, scrappy charm. Hatton blends Steinbeck’s nostalgia with a contemporary sensibility regarding her city, examining its quirks as astutely as Ricketts once studied marine life under his microscope. In her novel, Cannery Row itself becomes a protagonist, by turns vibrant and lethargic, seedy practicality struggling up over decades to flower into international renown.

Those who know their Steinbeck will imagine the author fleeing Cannery Row long before construction workers raised the steel supporting beams and acrylic viewing walls of the aquarium. He had no love for gentrification, and he’d likely view the avant-garde landmark with sardonic horror. But Hatton embraces the city’s transformation with her own protagonist’s enthusiasm, a business sense enlivened by the author’s own experiences as an aquarium volunteer. In the end, she inspires us to look beyond the four-star hotels and restaurants and spas that now line Cannery Row to the reason the landmark exists at all — the vast stretch of the Pacific it overlooks, still glorious despite all the many changes.

“At first, she thinks it’s sickness; the ocean is sore and inflamed and lumpy with pus,” she writes of her protagonist. “But then there’s an unexpected blast of vitality — reds and purples — which is when she knows it isn’t sickness. It’s squid. A huge, vibrant shoal of them, a kaleidoscopic swarm squirming and flashing, tentacles weaving as they rise toward the light.”

In Hatton’s novel, the changes that befall one’s hometown are never simply good or bad; rather, they are just inevitable. To survive them, Westerners will have to learn to find wonder where they can — and to roll with the tides.

Monterey Bay
Lindsay Hatton
320 pages,softcover: $16.
Penguin, 2017.

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