On a rain drenched Memorial Day weekend, I sat in my library reading The Grapes of Wrath. Ironically, it is Steinbeck’s multiple award winning novel about the drought that destroyed much of the mid-west during the 1930’s.
The first chapter sets a somber tone. The United States is suffering from the great depression with unemployment running at 25%. Unrelenting hot and dry weather hangs over the entire midwest stirring up black clouds of dust as farmers watch their crops wither and die. Family farms that were passed down for several generations face foreclosure while the families who own them suffer starvation and a bleak future. Thousands upon thousands of people (estimates up to 300,000) abandon their homes and head west on Route 66 in old beat up broken down trucks and cars, dreaming that California will be the land of milk and honey.
The Joad family is no exception – simple farm folks who moved about with a horse and buggy. They had to sell everything they owned to buy a used truck that would hold just a few household belongings and three generations of Joads. Their thoughts as they drove away from the only home they had every known “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?… How’ll it be not to know what land’s outside the door? How if you wake up in the night and know the willow tree’s not there? Can you live without the willow tree?.. you can’t… The willow tree is you.” (Pg. 91)
When young Al Joad asks, “Ma… you scared of goin’ to a new place?”, she answers, “No I ain’t. I can’t do that. It’s too much – livin’ too many lives. Up ahead they’s a thousan’ lives we might live, but when it comes, it’ll on’y be one. If I go ahead on all of ’em, it’s too much… it’s just the road goin’ by for me. An’ it’s jus’ how soon they gonna wanta eat some more porkbones.” (Pg. 127)
The Joads were used to living day to day with never a plan for the future. And maybe it’s a good thing Ma Joad didn’t look ahead too much this time either, because she would have been horrified.
Steinbeck tells his powerful story from the perspective of this uneducated simple family; hard working, religious, and self-reliant. As with all Steinbeck’s novels, every character is richly drawn. It’s amazing that he had the patience and creative ability to write hours upon hours of dialogue in the primitive broken English the Oklahomans spoke.
Among the cast of characters is a son Tom who’s been recently released from prison. A pregnant daughter who has no idea what being an adult is all about. Two very young children who think the journey is an adventure. Grand-Pop who can’t seem to keep his pants buttoned up properly and can’t wait to get to California, “I’ll have a big bunch of grapes in my han’ all the time, a-nibblin’ off it all the time, by God!” (Pg. 106). Grand-Ma is the only character with any control over Grand-Pop. The local preacher who’s given up his calling because he lost his faith in God decides to tag along with the Joads. And, my favorite – Ma Joad… the absolute rock that holds the family together.
The character development alone would have been enough to make this book a best seller. But it also has incredibly definitive descriptions of the scenery and a painfully executed plot bringing to life – in vivid detail – the hardships endured by the Joad family. What an incredible writer! Leave it to Steinbeck to turn a murderer (who’s broken the rules of parole by leaving the state of Oklahoma, and proceeded to kill a second time) into a hero.
The only negative about the book is John Steinbeck’s overt injection of communist doctrine – even mentioning Lenin and Marx – implying a revolution was forthcoming and that it might be a good thing. It is unclear if those short disconnected sermonizing chapters represented Steinbeck’s personal beliefs or were only meant to reflect the ideas of his characters. Research shows Steinbeck never actually joined the Communist party, and he was aware of the human atrocities under Lenin and Stalin – mass famine and the Great Purge – yet he clearly preached the negatives of capitalism and blamed the banks, big business, and greedy rich people for all the problems suffered by the thousands of people who migrated to California.
The Joad family didn’t know any better. They were clearly ignorant of the fact that poor farming practices were partially responsible for the Dust Bowl and their crop failures. They didn’t appreciate the positive effects of science and modern technology and could not comprehend the advancement of research and development promoted by big corporations that eventually enabled a total recovery of the raped land. They would have preferred to continue using the horse to pull their antiquated farm equipment. And Steinbeck made no excuses for them. Rather he viewed them as victims of the system.
Sadly, the big California farms exploited the migrant workers so it is easily understandable why the starving displaced Oklahomans were very bitter. Or perhaps people in a hopeless situation tend to cling to the need for finding someone else to blame. Otherwise their spirits would break, leaving them unable to face even one more day. Steinbeck summed it up perfectly… “a number of men gathered together, the fear went from their faces, and anger took its place. And the women sighed with relief, for they knew it was all right – the break had not come; and the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath”. (Pg. 451)
Winner of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the Nobel Prize for literature, and number 10 on the Modern Library best 100 novels The Grapes of Wrath is one of the greatest American novels of all time. This tragic tale is a must read.
Rated 5 Stars.
I use a rating scale of 1 to 5. Books rated 1, I seldom finish. Books rated 2, I usually finish but would never recommend to anyone. 5 is the highest rating.