Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

Tortilla Flat was my Classics Club Spin book to read by 30th April. It was John Steinbeck’s fourth novel, first published in 1935. Tortilla Flat is on the hill high above Monterey, an old city on the coast of California. Monterey is also the setting for Cannery Row (the first of John Steinbeck’s novels that I read) and Sweet Thursday, both of which I enjoyed, so I was expecting this book to be just as good. And after a somewhat slow start I soon settled into the book and thoroughly enjoyed it.

As Steinbeck explained in his Preface this is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends, Pilon, Pablo, Jesus Maria, and Big Joe. Tortilla Flat is a collection of stories about their escapades, and their thoughts and endeavours. They are paisanos, being a mix of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and assorted Caucasian bloods, living in old wooden houses in the midst of pine trees. The stories have almost a mythical feel and indeed, Steinbeck compares Danny and his friends to the Knights of the Round Table.

It begins just after the end of the First World War, when they return to find that Danny has inherited two houses from his grandfather. He lives in one house and ‘rents’ the other to his friends, but they are all poor, do not work and never pay him, except in wine. They spend their days partying, drinking, sleeping, thieving or in jail. After a while Pirate joins them along with his five dogs who follow him everywhere. He’s the only paisano who works, making 25 cents a day selling kindling, but he doesn’t spend it, saving it and hiding it. But they don’t really care about money, they trade what they have or what they find for wine and then share it before sleeping it off.

Some of the stories are humorous, and some are tragic. I enjoyed them all. They stress the importance of home, friendship, and survival, giving an insight into their life in Tortilla Flat. And I loved the descriptions of the landscape:

In the morning when the sun was up clear of the pine trees, when the blue bay rippled and sparkled below them, they arose slowly and thoughtfully from their beds.

It is a time of quiet joy, the sunny morning. when the glittery dew is on the mallow leaves, each leaf holds a jewel which is beautiful if not valuable. This is no time for hurry or for bustle. Thoughts are slow and deep and golden in the morning. (page 25)

And this passage:

They walked side by side along the dark beach toward Monterey, where the lights hung, necklace above necklace against the hill. The sand dunes crouched along the back of the beach like tired hounds, resting; and the waves gently practiced at striking, and hissed a little. (page 87)

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