The older I get, the more disinterested I become in classics, despite having grown up with them. They feel too long-winded, old-fashioned, and dull. Or as if they were childhood things which I’d been forced to enjoy. Nothing could be farther from my experience but, nowadays, it still takes the right book to remind me of how pleasurable and rich the experience of reading a classic can be. When my husband recently pointed out that Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck features a poodle, I pushed past my prejudice and fell in love with a good book.
When Steinbeck was almost sixty-years-old, he set out in a camper truck to rediscover America. He took with him only one companion, his poodle, partly to appease those who felt he risked danger by traveling alone but also because he recognized that a three-month road trip might prove lonely without some kind of companionship. One of their earliest adventures happens in Maine. It’s hunting season and anything that looks like a deer is fair game to be shot. That apparently includes cows, pigs, farmers, guides, and road signs. To avoid any chance of Charley being misidentified, Steinbeck ties a red bandana to his dog’s tail, securely held in place with multiple elastic bands. Another escapade happens when Steinbeck decides, as a way of saving time, to creep along the Ontario border. The problem is that one cannot bring their dog back into the United States without proof of vaccination. When Steinbeck learns this from the Canadian officials, he turns back before actually crossing the border. Unfortunately, this U-turn requires him to go through the U.S. border crossing, and subjects Steinbeck to being interrogated by American officials—and they aren’t happy when Steinbeck protests that he hadn’t officially left the United States.
On their road trip, not only did Steinbeck and his dog experience many adventures, but Charley also proved to have a great listening ear. Steinbeck shared with him musings about the changing landscape of America and the differences between small and big places, argued with him about the majesty of the redwoods, and commiserated with him during the lonely stretches of weathered road. Charley also served as “an ambassador with establishing contact with strangers”. Steinbeck would release Charley, who would head towards anyone who was making food. After drinking a coffee and giving Charley “time to operate,” Steinbeck would follow to apologize for his dog. In this way, the ice was broken and conversation could ensue.
Another point in favor of Travels with Charley as a dog book is that Charley survives the trip. However, he does get sick. And in trying to find medical care for his poodle, Steinbeck learns a thing or two about bad and good vets. He also shares with readers some of his respect for dogs, or at least for his Charley, in knowing what practitioners to trust. There’s plenty of suspense to be found in these moments, for by now readers will have learned to care about Charley.
In revealing that there are no dead dogs at the end, I’m not giving away any spoilers. Travels with Charley is only in part about Steinbeck’s trip with his dog. It’s as much or more about the people whom Steinbeck meets and the reflections he shares. I enjoyed reading about Steinbeck’s preparations for the trip and discovering that like me he packs far more than anyone could ever conceivably need. It was also amusing to find that Steinbeck shares my penchant for getting lost. Actually, something that appealed to me about Travels with Charley is discovering how much of an everyman Steinbeck is, despite being an author of acclaimed fame and having won the Novel Prize for Literature. While most of his encounters were anecdotal in nature, near the end there is an interesting description about a racially-charged event, and his own honest guttural reaction. Today we can read Travels with Charley and think nothing of it, but back in Steinbeck’s time he expressed views that landed him in the middle of controversy, and this event reminded me of that fact.
Not too many years ago I read another of Steinbeck’s works and enjoyed it. Why I’ve taken so long to read another I’m not sure, except for the undeserved disdain which classics can often receive. Travels with Charley is a book for which, amidst agility trials with our own poodle this weekend, I kept trying to squeeze time to read. I enjoyed Steinbeck’s quiet travelogue, not least of all because he took his dog on his journey, and highly recommend it.
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
How would you rate this book?