Tortilla Flat – Book Review

TortillaFlatWhat is a paisano? He is a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and assorted Caucasian bloods. His ancestors have lived in California for a hundred or two years. He speaks English with a paisano accent and Spanish with a paisano accent. 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. His color, like that of a well-browned meerschaum pipe, he ascribes to sunburn. He is a paisano, and he lives in that uphill district above the town of Monterey called Tortilla Flat, although it isn’t a flat at all. – from Tortilla Flat, page 2 –

Danny, the hero of John Steinbeck’s novella Tortilla Flat, is a paisano. When he inherits two small houses in Tortilla Flat, his friends soon discover that living beneath a roof is preferable to sleeping in the woods. Pilon, Pablo, Pirate and his pack of friendly dogs, Joe Portagee, and Jesus Maria soon move in with Danny. Together, they commit petty theft, drink far too much cheap wine, and engage in a number of sexual liaisons with the town women. They also develop strong friendships with each other – friendships based on a common philosophy that material goods are not what create happiness, and freedom comes in choosing to live unencumbered by traditional social mores. The paisanos are loyal to their comrades over all else.

Based loosely on the tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable, Steinbeck’s classic novel explores the growing friendships of the paisanos and their skewed view of morality. They often steal from their neighbors, yet unselfishly assist those in need; they are quick to come to the rescue of the local women, but do not deny themselves sexual gratification. They share stories to help teach each other the lessons of  life. Steinbeck clearly loves this scrappy band of  brothers and with humor and sensitivity he creates memorable and likable characters. At times, Tortilla Flat feels like a collection of short stories or parables.

Steinbeck sets Tortilla Flat during the Depression era in a town just outside of Monterey, California and with his signature style captures the flavor of that time period and geographic area.

It will not surprise anyone that I thoroughly enjoyed Tortilla Flat. I have long come to recognize Steinbeck as an astute writer who crafts his characters with detail and empathy. Although this novella has a different feel and style from his better known novels such as East of Eden or The Grapes of Wrath, it is of the same high quality. In less than 200 pages, Steinbeck succeeds in drawing the reader into the world of the paisano and leaves her wanting for more.

Highly recommended.


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  1. I have trouble figuring out how to rate “classics.” Somehow, they don’t do for me what they used to, or used to do when they came out at any rate, and yet you know they’re “classics” and revered by literature teachers… It’s all too difficult for me! But I enjoyed your review!

    • Kathy on August 24, 2009 at 16:11

    This sounds like it’s one not to be missed. Fantastic review!

    • Lezlie on August 24, 2009 at 16:58

    I’m wondering if Steinbeck’s shorter novels are good introductions for people who may be a little intimidated by him. I haven’t ready any Steinbeck yet, but this one looks good!


  2. Hi Wendy! Great to meet you this weekend in Portland. SOOOOOOOOOOOOO glad you could make the trip!

    Well, based on your review, I might give Steinbeck a second chance. I still bear a grudge for the high school Purgatory that was Grapes of Wrath.

  3. I struggle with Steinbeck. Other than East of Eden and maybe Of Mice and Men, I’m not really a fan. I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath more times than I would like to admit, all in an effort to figure out why people like it so much. The Red Pony scarred me. The Pearl I thought was boring. But, in spite of that, it sounds like this might be a bit different. I might just have to add this to my TBR pile and give Steinbeck yet one more chance! Thanks for the review!

    • diane on August 24, 2009 at 19:03

    I’m glad you enjoyed this one Wendy, as I was planning on reading it for my Steinbeck mein challenge. Great review.

    • Jeane on August 24, 2009 at 19:30

    Honestly, this is one Steinbeck novel I never could get into, no more than ten pages. And I tried twice! But now that I know a little more of what it’s about, I might give it another attempt.

  4. I have to hang my head in shame and admit that I’ve never read any Steinbeck – no, not even ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. I should probably be banned from the reading community forever. I will try and put this on the tbr pile. It’s just that one more addition and it may come tumbling down and bury me and The Bears in the process.

    • Amanda on August 25, 2009 at 06:06

    Have you seen the movie with Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr? I haven’t read the book but the movie was pretty good. It was pretty funny too.

    • Wendy on August 25, 2009 at 06:35

    Rhapsody: In general, I agree – but, I try to rate them based on my response to them, not on the fact that they are classics. Steinbeck is easy for me – I pretty much have loved everything he’s written that I have read. Dickens is difficult…for example, I know Great Expectations is supposed to be loved by all…but I struggled to finish it. I always feel a little badly if I give a classic book like that a negative rating!

    Thanks, Kathy…hope you’ll get a chance to read it.

    Lezlie: Hmmmmm, I don’t know. I’d recommend Of Mice and Men probably before this one. But my favorite Steinbeck’s are his chunksters.

    Gillian: It was awesome to meet you too! I remember disliking The Grapes of Wrath when I was forced to read it in high school. But when I re-read it as an adult, I absolutely loved it. So, you never know!!

    Michelle: Well you’re talking to someone who LOVED Grapes of Wrath *laughs* But that said, Tortilla Flat is quite a bit different from his bigger best sellers. I don’t know if you’d like it any better or not.

    Diane: I hope you’ll enjoy it – will look forward to reading your thoughts on it.

    Jeane: I thought it started a tad slowly…but once I got into the characters, I really enjoyed it.

    Anne: *laughing* No, we won’t ban you!! This would be an easy one to read…it is really short (and therefore doesn’t weigh a lot so it might be added to your TBR pile without creating collapse!)

    Amanda: I have not seen the movie…but the book is funny in places. Steinbeck has a real sense of humor!

    • Pam on August 26, 2009 at 10:29

    East of Eden is my favorite JS but this is really too different t get second place. i think it’s more of a parallel ranking than a lesser one. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    • Teddy on August 26, 2009 at 21:41

    I love Steinbeck! I read this on in H.S. and I hope to re-visit it as an adult.

    • Wendy on September 2, 2009 at 06:56

    Pam: I totally understand that…I think it is hard to compare works sometimes. I guess my ranking Tortilla Flat a little lower has more to do with my level of enjoyment in reading the book. I remember putting both East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath down and feeling like I had LIVED those books and spent quality time with the characters to the point that I missed them when the books were finished. I enjoyed the characters of Tortilla Flat, but it was easy to move on to my next book.

    Teddy: I always like to go back and re-read classics that I read when I was in H.S. – I think much of what kids are forced to read in H.S. are over their heads…and they appreciate the books much more as adults.

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