Reading Steinbeck’s Ghost

steinbecksghostI’m a huge fan of John Steinbeck’s work. East of Eden is my all-time favorite novel, Grapes of Wrath a close second, and I loved Pastures of Heaven, In Dubious BattleOf Mice and Men, and Cannery Row. The Log from the Sea of Cortez is on my bedside table, ready to read after I finish The Corrections.

Steinbeck’s Ghost by Lewis Buzbee is written for middle readers but my eight-year-old daugher, husband and I all thoroughly enjoyed the story. Set in Salinas, Steinbeck’s hometown, Steinbeck’s Ghost is an homage to libraries, specifically the Steinbeck Library in Salinas, and to books, which have the power to transport us to strange and delightful worlds . (Buzbee is passionate about bookstores too; his memoir The Yellow LIghted Bookshop is fabulous).

Travis, the novel’s hero and a latchkey kid (his parents work like dogs at souless Silicon Valley jobs to pay for the family’s fancy new home in a sterile development) loves books and the library. When Travis finds out his beloved Steinbeck library will be closing due to insufficient funds, he joins a small group of concerned citizens to save the library. This part of the book is based on fact; fortunately in 2005, the public got wind of the looming closure and rallied to keep it open. The likes of Bill Murray and other concerned folks contributed their money and celebrity and the doors stayed open.

Buzbee weaves this plot brilliantly into another involving a one-time author with writer’s block, and in ghost form (or are they ghosts?) Steinbeck and a cast of characters that includes Doc Ricketts (Cannery Row), Tularcito (Pastures of Heaven), Gitano (The Red Pony), and Johnny Bear  (The Long Valley). Slowly these characters appear, as Travis and his delightful buddy Hilario join the campaign to save the library. By far the most compelling scenes in the novel are those in which Travis, his writer friend, and Hilario meet the Steinbeck characters. The result is an imaginative and refreshing story about the power of  books and civic responsibility.

If you love Steinbeck, you’ll love his Ghost.


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