Ace Woestendiek paying tribute to John Steinbeck

True confession: I’ve never been in a book club, real or virtual, much less organized one of my own. After years of graduate school literature classes, I didn’t want to discuss books for a while; I just wanted to read them without pressure to say what I thought. When I got over that, I was reluctant to have people that I didn’t know very well over to my house. Let’s just say I’m a bit housekeeping challenged.

So I’m a little nervous about this new venture. But I’ll try not to let it show. Besides, I hear wine is a key component of book clubs. And no one will know if you — or I — have a second or third glass, and at what time of the day or night we have it.

Book Club Logistics

Here’s how it works. Over at A Travelers Library, I wrote about Travels with Charley as a work of travel literature, and posed a few discussion questions at the end. I hope you will go over there and participate.

On this blog, it’s all about the animals — dogs, cats, camels, donkeys… whatever creatures come along on the trip described in the book. There’ll be questions here too. Feel free to ask your own or just say whatever you like as long as it’s  more or less related to the book. Or book clubs. Or animals. Or wine.

I’ll never close off the comments (although I’ll monitor them, as I monitor all comments). I just might not engage in the conversation as vigorously after the first week as in the beginning.

We run a loose ship around here.

What I Expected from Travels with Charley

John Steinbeck and Charley

As I wrote over at A Traveler’s Library, I didn’t expect the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, one who is known for his social consciousness, to write a book that was so much fun and that was so self reflective.

I also didn’t expect Travels with Charley: In Search of America, to have so many scenes with Charley in it. Sure, he’s the title character but I figured he might be a literary device. Steinbeck writes, “A dog, particularly an exotic like Charley, is a bond between strangers. Many conversations on route begin ‘What degree of dog is that?'”

Moreover, I had read that taking Charley along was an afterthought, a suggestion by Steinbeck’s wife, Elaine.

I also imagined that back in 1960, when Steinbeck took the trip  (the book was published in 1962), the man-dog interactions would be more, well, manly — as in silent, no emotion expressed. Maybe I was thinking of Hemingway.

I was delighted to discover that Charley is a full-fleshed character, that Steinbeck’s relations with him are quite tender, and the descriptions of him —  dare I say it — a bit anthropomorphic. Their relationship struck me as remarkably contemporary, similar to those I read on my favorite pet blogs (maybe a bit better written; Steinbeck did deserve that Nobel Prize).

Here’s the book’s introduction to Charley, who is:

…an old French gentleman poodle… Actually his name is Charles le Chien. He was born in Bercy on the outskirts of Paris… and while he knows a little poodle-English, he responds quickly only to commands in French. Charley… prefers negotiation to fighting, and properly so, since he is very bad at fighting.

Charley is also quite expressive.

He is the only dog I know who could pronounce the consonant F. This is because his front teeth are crooked… and his upper front teeth slightly engage with his lower lip. The word ‘Ftt” usually means he would like to salute a bush or tree.

Finally, according to the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, taking Charley along was not an afterthought:

I remember when he asked to take Charley Dog,” [Steinbeck’s] wife later recalled. “He said rather meekly, ‘This is a big favor I’m going to ask, Elaine. Can I take Charley?’ ‘What a good idea, I said, ‘if you get into any kind of trouble, Charley can go get help.’ John looked at me sternly and said, ‘Elaine, Charley isn’t Lassie.’

Some favorite scenes

I savored almost all the scenes that had Charley in them, but some of my favorites that show Charley acting like every dog I know include:

Over the years Charley has developed a number of innocent-appearing ways to get me up. He can shake himself and his collar loud enough to wake the dead…. but perhaps his most irritating method is to sit quietly by the bed and stare into my face with a sweet and forgiving look on his face; I come out of a deep sleep with a feeling of being looked at.

And when Charlie tries to cheer Steinbeck out of a blue funk:

He came into the bathroom and that old fool played with the plastic bath mat like a puppy….Then he rushed to the door and barked as though I were being invaded.

These are too long to quote but, in no particular order, I was fond of the scenes where:

  • The pair are stopped at the U.S.-Canadian border and, because Steinbeck doesn’t have proof of Charley’s rabies shot, they have to turn around and are hassled, even though they never enter Canada.
  • Steinbeck tries to impress Charley with the redwood trees, to let him know that they are actually trees and that he therefore has permission to pee on them. Charley is not convinced.
  • All the medical scenes: the one where Steinbeck tries to treat Charley’s prostate problems himself, and the ones with the vets, both the bad one and the good one. I tear up when I think how sweet Steinbeck is with Charley, how much he clearly cares about his pal.

The only thing that I found discordant — really, just clueless —  is the scene where Steinbeck sprays his van, Rocinante, with insecticide and then seems surprised that Charley is “allergic” to the toxic stuff, sneezing his head off at it. Steinbeck otherwise seems savvy  — indeed, prescient — about environmental issues, complaining about the pollution of rivers, etc.


What were your favorite Charley scenes?

What struck you most about the relationship between Charley and Steinbeck?

How do you think a trip like this would be different now?

Next month’s book

And here’s a bonus. Although it’s early in this book club for me to have a guest host, my friend Rebecca Boren is going to fill in for me. This is because, having seen the book in my house, she started reading it, bought a copy, and proceeded to read it three times.

You may have heard of Rebecca as Frankie’s rescuer. But she is also a respected journalist, the one-time senior editor at The Seattle Weekly and chief political reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. This is very relevant to this book, which has a newspaper publisher as the narrator, as well as relevant to the fact that I’m honored to have her as a guest poster. And then there’s the mini-schauzer connection.

But that will all become clear on December 8.

Photo credits & disclosures

John Woestendiek, whom I interviewed for Animal Cafe, set out with his dog, Ace, to replicate Steinbeck’s trip with Charley. He took this tribute photo in Monterey, California. You can read about the trip on his blog, Travels with Ace.

The photograph of Steinbeck and Charlie, by Vera Marie Badertscher — of A Traveler’s Library fame — was taken at The Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California.

I am an Amazon affiliate. If you buy a book through this site, I get a few cents.

37 thoughts on “The Pet Travel Book Club Kicks Off with Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley”

  1. although i haven’t read this book in years (decades!), you’ve sure made me want to go back. steinbeck is such an extraordinary writer that it is always a pleasure to read his books.

    how do i think a trip like this would be different now? there’s not a sense of openness, i think, in the US today. people are more insulated (and isolated) by technology. now, the author would be spending much more time online, trying to find wifi spots to post his article on his blog, and focusing less on the journey. sad, yes?!

    1. What a great take on how the journey would be different today — I now have an image of Steinbeck blogging from Rocinante and trying to find pet-friendly campgrounds! Thanks for coming by, Jessie.

    1. Same way I missed reading it when I’d been assigned all kinds of other Steinbeck classics! You’ll really enjoy it, I’m sure.

  2. It not only makes me want to read Travels With Charley (I think I read it years ago, but can’t remember a darn thing about it), but also other Steinbeck books. So many classic authors get lost in the fray of our modern world.

    1. I think Steinbeck in particular got the reputation of being depressing — well, that’s what you get when you write about the Depression! — but his works are ultimately uplifting. And this one is downright funny!

  3. You picked all my favorite scenes. I’m not yet finished reading the book so I haven’t come to the vet scenes or the Redwoods. Like you I was flabbergasted at John spraying poison in his truck with Charlie in there! OMG! I too was taken by John’s tenderness towards Charlie and delighted that he not once referred to Charlie as trying to dominate him! My only complaint: I wanted more Charlie.

    1. Ha — you’re right, no domination problems in this book! And they’re not even a pack of two. I was so glad to see that it was ok for a man to care about and talk to his dog in an intelligent fashion without apologizing for it.

  4. I came very late to this book, too. I read it finally after seeing it at the top of every list of best American road trip books.
    One thing that struck me is how differently dogs are treated in different countries. In America of Steinbeck’s time and now, too, a dog opens doors. People are at the very least curious, and generally kind. However in many countries I have visited, I would be reluctant to take a dog along because they are treated as surrogates for enemies–as creatures with no soul–which of course we know Charley had.
    Bravo for introducing Travels With Charley to people who may not have read it yet.

    1. Thank *you* for giving me the opportunity. If I hadn’t been invited to blog at A Traveler’s Library, I would not have been inspired to read the book or start the book club.

      And I do appreciate your coming by, even though my blog rudely cuts off your last name. Folks, my Tucson pal and ATL founder’s last name is Badertscher, not Badertsch. Hmmm. Have you considered shortening it?

  5. My favorite Charlie scene was where he wandered off to greet other nearby campers and make introductions. Part of me is horrified at the thought of letting my dog wander around without me. The other part is enchanted at a dog being able to roam free and remain safe.

    Steinbeck started out connected with working people. But his fame put him in a new place. I think Charlie was an ambassador that kept him grounded.

    If Steinbeck was taking this trip today, he wouldn’t have to work so hard to outfit his camper. He’d plunk down his AmEx at the RV dealership and have a fully outfitted vehicle with all the latest luxuries in no time.

    I’m a sucker for a road story. This is one I’ve particularly enjoyed listening to as a book on tape during a long drive.

    Thanks for kicking off the book group!

    1. You’re so right about outfitting the camper — it would have been a piece of cake, and Steinbeck would never have to stay at a motel when he wanted a hot shower. I did wonder whether Charlie was permitted in the rooms. Steinbeck never mentions it being an issue.

      I listened to this book on CD, too, as I do every book unless it’s not available in that form. But I found that I was unable to write a post based on my recollections — it’s really hell on quotes! — so I took the book out of the library afterward.

      Thank you for taking part!

  6. I haven’t finished the book yet, but I am enjoying it so far. This review makes me want to set aside some time this weekend to finish it ASAP. 🙂

    I love that the interactions between Steinbeck and Charley aren’t so “manly.” That fantastic connection reminds me of my dad and his Chihuahuas, and of my own husband and Bella.

    1. That’s right, I remember your mentioning your dad and his Chihuahuas in the context of my Real Men Love Cats video. I can just picture Steinbeck in that video now 😉

  7. You write beautifully. You also must have heard that a thousand times. Ah well, couldn’t let it pass without saying it.

    I came here on Vera-Marie’s recommendation, so I have her to thank.

    I am pretty sure I never read Travels With Charley. I read The Grapes Of Wrath as a young teenager and I think looking back that it was one of the formative books in giving me a certain world view.

    I read The Pearl and Cannery Row and I remember being horribly depressed by Of Mice And Men – I think that stopped me reading him – there is only so much hovering sadness a person can take.

    So Travels with Charley sounds a good antidote and it’s on the list to buy.

    1. First, thank you so much for your kind words about my writing. I have not heard that a thousand times (not even close!), but even if I had, it would be always be welcome. No writer would ever want you to let a compliment about her writing pass.

      I have Vera-Marie to thank for sending *you.*

      I felt exactly the same way as you do about expecting Steinbeck to be depressing, and in these tough economic times I figured he was the last author I’d want to read. I was so glad to be proven wrong. And I’m very pleased that you’re going to give Travels with Charley a chance too.

  8. I am a bad book clubber as I have yet to finish this one. I will, I promise, probably this afternoon due to the pouring rain that’s keeping me inside.

    Having escaped Steinbeck for most of my life, I am surprised to discover I actually like his writing style. It’s honest and sincere. For some reason I expected him to be pompous. Perhaps I was thinking of Hemingway as well. What I like most is how he seems to appreciate the little moments. The whole book is like a series of little moments that make me smile and reflect. If nothing else, he was a man who loved his dog for who his dog really was. That’s enough to win me over.

    Now I am going to have to seek out some of his other books.

    1. If it’s any consolation, no one finished the book (except people who already read it before). I’m going to have to think of incentives — carrots, not sticks, or maybe clicks and treats — to whip my virtual book club members into virtual shape since there’s no public shaming as there is in a book club that meets.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the book. Yes, I agree, every page had another little moment that made me stop and think. Steinbeck is never pompous but his topics are usually depressing so be prepared to worry about the state of the country and of the world if you read, say, Grapes of Wrath.

      1. Actually, I read it. I just didn’t get around to writing about it for the due date. I’ve got a blog post about it scheduled for Friday, though. I enjoyed reading it.

        1. I’ll look forward to reading your review. And there’s no due date for comments, really. Even if no one else follows up, I’ll be reading what everyone has to say with interest.

  9. What an interesting post and fun idea, the pet book club! I haven’t read Steinbeck since I was in grammar school and, like others, I remember him as a bit depressive. About time I have another look – with grown-up eyes. Travels with Charley sounds wonderful.

  10. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t even start the book, but thanks to your always-evocative post, will get it and start reading ASAP. I, too, expected something Hemingway-esque, which caused me to put the book on the back burner. Maybe I was confusing their attitudes toward animals with their mutual love of the bottle: did I ever tell you about the time during the Great Depression when my newlywed parents lived next door to Steinbeck in Monterey, and one Christmas Eve he confused their bungalow for his and drunkenly made his way to the roof to pretend to be Santa Claus? Of course such a guy would appreciate his pet’s sense of humor!

    1. You’ve been holding out on me, Clare. I had no idea that your parents lived next door to Steinbeck in Monterey. What a great story!

      I think Hemingway would have written a Clean, Well Lighted Dog House: “He was a good dog. He liked a good bone and a clean bowl of water.” Or maybe in the spirit of A Moveable Feast he would have had pictured F. Scott Fitzgerald with a Chihuahua, contemplating buying him neuticles.

  11. I love your take off on Travels with Charley by Hemingway. What fun it would be to do parodies with a bunch of famous writers. But of course some journalist would come along and say it wasn’t accurate!

    1. Thanks for noticing! I was thinking how much fun it would be to do literary parodies. My fear was not being accused of inaccuracy – 😉 — but that no one would know the original…

  12. I love Charley’s “Ftt.” It turns out Caleb does this as well! Though his has come to signify a mild form of protest — when things aren’t going his way, out comes the “Ftt.”

    I always remember Charley doing this and am grateful to have an expressive canine pal 🙂

    1. How funny! I’m going to have to watch for Caleb’s “Ftt,” though I guess he doesn’t have anything to protest when he’s out on the trail.
      Thanks for coming by, Jillian.

  13. I’ve read this book twice, once before Poodles and years later after Poodles. Steinbeck had it right. The uninformed believe that Poodles must be embarrassed by their ‘do. Actually they feel quite superior.

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