This little masterpiece of fiction is set in a part of the country well-known to John Steinbeck. For, he was born in Salinas, California, which is a few miles from the Pacific Ocean; secondly, Steinbeck worked in the fertile fields of the Salinas Valley, known as "America's Salad Bowl," alongside many migrant laborers. Twenty-five miles southeast of Salinas is the town of Soledad; this town is in the heart of what is now the wine-making business. But, since the town's name is Spanish for "solitude," Steinbeck chose Soledad as the setting probably because the town's name relates to the major theme of loneliness.
During the Great Depression, many men left their families and migrated to the fertile fields of California in the hope of work in this new "land of milk and honey." When they found work, it was usually only seasonal and the "bindle stiffs" would have to seek work elsewhere. Always solitary, always anxious, they lived in fear and held a fragile hope for happiness. As a metaphor for these feelings, the opening chapter describes the clearing near Soledad:
There is a path through the willows and among the sycamores...and beaten hard by tramps who come wearily down from the highway in the evening.... In front of the low horizontal limb of a ...worn smooth by men who have sat on it.
It takes place in the Salinas Valley, which is part of northern California.
A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green.