Book Review #1: John Steinbeck “Travels with Charley” into Despair, Again

While in high school, I read The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. My teenage self was completely depressed by the sepia-toned trudge through despair depicted in both books. I have not read another Steinbeck book since. A few months ago, my golf partner Lisa told me that it was safe to read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. She said it was a light-hearted, cross-country romp by one of America’s great writers with his standard poodle Charley. She said it would be okay.

Months after Lisa made her recommendation, I found Travels with Charley at the Book Nook. I bought it and was complimented by the elderly woman at the checkout for reading a “classic”. I also accidentally bought an abridged youth version of Last of the Mohicans (so I still haven’t read that).

Travels starts out with Steinbeck at his home in Sag Harbor, NY battling a hurricane where he saves his boat by sailing it out into the harbor, anchoring and swimming/floating back to his dock. The reader now knows Steinbeck is an athletic 59-year-old in 1960.


The book has the old book smell which is the best thing about it.

The adventure begins with Charley and John in a well-stocked pick-up with a canopy on it. It’s fancy for 1960. The boys venture up to Maine and at the outset it appears to be fairly jolly with a two-for-the-road optimism. That doesn’t last long. Steinbeck wanted to take the trip to rediscover America and Americans but I gotta tell you, he probably should have just stayed home.

Old Johnny boy drives and meets people and talks to them and the more he travels the more depressed he gets. Small businesses and towns were disappearing, Charley smelled bad, he over-packed (John not Charley), he can’t speak French with the migrant potato pickers from Quebec (again John), Charley’s prostate is acting up, the hits just keep coming.

To provide a more in-depth analysis of Steinbeck’s oeuvre, I have brought on noted Steinbeck expert and Education major from Colgate University, Judith Crosby. Judy (as I call her) also has a Master’s Degree and read 70 books in 2017, which was a light year for her so you can tell she is highly-qualified. Her thoughts:

I developed my lifelong suspicion of John Steinbeck‘s writings in seventh grade. I loved English class and our super sweet English teacher was named Mrs. English and how cute is that?

Here’s what I remember:
The Pearl= everything is terrible, someone dies an awful death- pretty sure the kid, the pearl gets thrown back in the ocean so, what a waste.

Of Mice and Men= everything is terrible and Lennie accidentally does something terrible and then he gets killed by his best friend George which is actually the right thing to do but, by the way, I’m 12, and everything is terrible.

Travels with Charlie I have just learned = the dog actually doesn’t die but everything else is terrible.

East of Eden = awful, then terrible, then death bed I guess silver lining, but awful.

The Red Pony = I was never a horse girl so I don’t remember anything about this one but pretty sure it was awful.

Oddly, I never bothered with Grapes of Wrath.

Not surprisingly, I have not gone back to reread any of these as an adult. I used to worry for Mr. Steinback’s mental health but now that I think about it, I really should have worried about Mrs. English especially since the next book we read after all of that was Oliver Twist.

So you can trust my analysis of Travels with Charley, as I am backed up by Judy. Kinda pissed because I only finished the book to see if the dog died, obviously that would be a very Steinbeck ending to his “happy” book.


I’m guessing the rabbits die.


Stay tuned for more literary insight, I will be reviewing every book I read this year. I love Dickens so I might just have to reread A Tale of Two Cities, the book that taught me the word “foreshadowing”. 


10 thoughts on “Book Review #1: John Steinbeck “Travels with Charley” into Despair, Again

  1. I have Travels with Charlie on my bookshelf, Mags. I can’t remember if I liked it or not but now I need to read it again to find out–it’s been a very longgggg time. I think during Steinbeck’s time, there was much to be depressed about. Art mimics life and life mimics art –that old chestnut. But give me a story about the love between master and dog and I’m in. Glad to know the dog doesn’t die because I was a wreck after watching the movie, Marley and Me. I may have to wait until winter goes away before attempting this though. :).

  2. I’ve only read Cannery Row and The Pearl. I loved them both, but I never went on to read more Steinbeck. But I think I understand why now. It’s just very heavy reading, emotionally speaking. You have to be mentally prepared for it.

  3. “Travels” was one of the books I assigned my home schooled son (he’s 30 with a bachelor’s degree today). I liked it (anything with a bit of travel and adventure gets a pass) but my son just shrugged it off. I eased up on the “classics” and let him read more non-fiction and biography. As for “Last of the Mohicans”, I refused to put him through it. The story is fascinating but Cooper’s prose is impossible. Rent the movie.

  4. Caroline S.

    Great blog, Maggie.Your sentence: “the sepia-toned trudge through despair” is as good as, better than, any JS wrote. Fan of Judith Crosby’s summary as well.

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