Kristina's Reviews > Tortilla Flat

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
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's review
Apr 02, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: steinbeck, naturalism-realism, fiction

Tortilla Flat was an unusual novel for me. I picked it up off the shelf expecting a story similar to The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men. Instead, I got something completely different. Tortilla Flat is closer to a fairy tale or a fable than it is to a traditional novel. It tells of the adventures of Danny and his friends, a group of paisanos living in Monterey in the years after WWI. Danny returns from the war to find that he has inherited two houses from his grandfather. He quickly loses one of the houses to a fire, and the rest of the novel describes the exploits of Danny and his friends, who all come to live together in the remaining house.

The story is organized into seventeen chapters, each colorfully named and describing a different adventure in the lives of Danny and his friends. The writing style is simple and unadorned, which suits the format of the novel perfectly. One feels almost as if they are reading one of Aesop's fables while reading about Danny's exploits - with an obvious difference being the quite unconventional "morals" present in the tales.

Tortilla Flat is meant to be a take on King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and one can immediately see the similarities in style. This novel is very much the absurd, backwards, "everyman" version of Authurian legend. The cast of characters Steinbeck assembles are not your typical band of heroes, but they are lovable just the same. Danny, Pablo, Pilon, Jesus Maria, Pirate (and his dogs) and Big Joe are loud, drunk, shiftless, lazy and violent, but at times they show an interesting wisdom. Their moral code, while a bit unorthodox, elevates them above their more base characteristics. The warm and lighthearted tone with which Steinbeck describes this ragtag band of friends allows the reader to forgive their sins and laugh at the various scrapes they get themselves into.

What I personally loved about this book was the way it snuck up on me. When I started reading the novel, I admit that I wasn't sure if I would like it or not. The characters weren't immediately likable, and not even remotely relatable to my personality. However, the more I read, the more I got comfortable with them. As I came to understand their code of behavior, I grew to truly enjoy reading about them. By the end of the book I felt downright maternal towards some of them, which made the rather serious ending of the novel particularly sad for me. I suppose the fact that I was so saddened by the ending speaks to the depth of feeling I eventually developed for the characters.

My favorite chapters were the two concerning Pirate and his quest, which were among the most touching in the book. It was in those two chapters that my feelings towards the characters softened considerably. Other highlights in the novel include the tale of the vacuum cleaner and the pants that changed ownership twice in quite a short amount of time.

Tortilla Flat earned a four star rating for me because while I enjoyed the novel immensely, it's not my favorite of Steinbeck's works. That being said, it's still a worthwhile read and I heartily recommend it to anyone looking for something a little bit different. You will laugh and you will cry. What more can anyone ask of a novel, really?

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