Thursday, October 29, 2015

Tortilla Flat

Frankly, I do not know what to think about John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat.  On the one hand, this 1935 novel is an entertaining look at life through the eyes of a bunch of men whose biggest concern in life is where their next bottle of wine is coming from; on the other, the novel tends to leave the impression that everyone living in the Tortilla Flat section of Monterey, California, is shiftless and lazy.  And that impression, considering that all the characters in Tortilla Flat are (or would be called in today’s terms) Hispanics, is not one that leaves the reader very comfortable.

Danny and his friends are actually “paisanos.”  As Steinbeck puts it, a paisano “is a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and assorted Caucasian bloods.  His ancestors have lived in California for a hundred or two years…when questioned concerning his race, he indignantly claims pure Spanish blood and rolls up his sleeve to show that the soft inside of his arm is nearly white.” 

Danny’s crew has more in common than the love of drink.  He and several of his friends, in a moment of drunken patriotism, joined the military at the outbreak of World War I, and now they have returned one-by-one to Tortilla Flat to resume the lives they temporarily abandoned.  The boys had varying degrees of success during the war.  Danny himself never left the States, others of them saw the fighting, and at least one of them spent most of the war in the brig.  But now they are home and they have resumed a shiftless lifestyle that sees them working only long enough to earn the next bottle or two of wine. 

Author John Steinbeck
Then Danny receives something of a mixed blessing when he inherits the two Tortilla Flat houses owned by his elderly grandfather.  His neighborhood prestige and status are immediately enhanced, but Danny is quick to feel the burdens of property ownership - and, rather than being excited by his windfall, Danny is troubled and unhappy.  It is only when his friends begin to move into his houses with him that Danny is finally able to settle into his new lifestyle, but even then he misses the carefree (and often violent) lifestyle that he lived before the war.  Danny simply misses his old life:

            “When Danny thought of the old lost time, he could taste again how good the stolen food was, and he longed for that old time again.  Since his inheritance had lifted him, he had not fought often.  He had been drunk, but not adventurously so.  Always the weight of the house was upon him; always the responsibility to his friends.”

Danny and his friends may be living lives filled with personal tragedy, but they live and love exactly as they wish.  They are their own men and, although most of us would condemn their habits and their lifestyles, they are happy.  But looking at the novle through today’s eyes, I still don’t know what to think of Tortilla Flat.  Is it insensitive and unfair, or is it simply a well-written product of its times?  Each of us, I suppose, will have to decide that for ourselves.

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  1. I read this book way back in high school along with Grapes of Wrath. I loved Steinbeck's novels because they were about places I knew, but in earlier times. - Margy

  2. I love Steinbeck, too, Margy. I've been slowly re-reading a lot of his work (six books this year) and I think I appreciate him even more than I did when I was younger.