Monday, August 12, 2013

#66 - "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck

This was a book I felt I was somewhat familiar with before I started reading it. I know now that the only reason I thought that was because I was aware of the movie starring Henry Fonda, and I knew it involved the Dust Bowl and the great migration to California. But really, I didn't know anything about this book. And most importantly, I didn't know what a good book it was, nor what a fantastic writer John Steinbeck was. I regret that I hadn't read this sooner.

The Grapes of Wrath is the story of the Joad family, who have been evicted from their farm in Oklahoma and find themselves unemployed and homeless. After learning of the opportunities in the fertile lands of California picking fruit, they sell the bulk of their few possessions, load up the family truck, and head West.

As they set out, they're full of hope, having heard California is so bountiful you can just pick fruit of the side of the road whenever you are hungry, and that the millions of acres of farmland are in desperate need of hard-working people to earn top wages. Naturally everything doesn't turn out as well as they had hoped. To begin, the journey to California, via jalopy, across terrible road conditions through deserts and mountains, proves more arduous than expected. Unlike travel today, the Joads face a journey where a blown tire between towns could mean death, and sooner rather than later, it does for some of them.

The closer they get to California, the harder the journey gets. Not only is it physically grueling to travel in a pick up truck with ten other people (!), but their dreams begin to fade as they encounter people returning to Oklahoma because they'd rather "starve in a land they know then one they don't." So many other "okies" made the same journey, there is a surplus of labor in the Golden State, and most farms only offer slave wages; not even enough to feed one's self, never mind an entire family.

When they do arrive in California, they join fellow migrants, living in deplorable conditions, working for mere pennies a day, hoping only to make enough to be able to get through the following day. Instead of being unemployed and starving as they were in Oklahoma, they find themselves working 14 hour days, and starving all night. Starving and without any prospects, the family continues to unravel, while the possibility of a life in the promised land dims with every passing day.

The Grapes of Wrath is an excellent book on so many levels. Steinbeck grabs the reader's attention immediately, as he describes a land ravaged by drought and despair, and then introduces colorful and complete characters who are able to maintain the reader's interest and more importantly, their sympathy.

A tragedy in every sense of the word, I found myself always having hope that things might turn out okay, despite there being absolutely no evidence this would be the case. In fact, the entire book points in the opposite direction; the first couple of pages as they prepare to set out West, is the only time things aren't dire for the Joads. You know you're in for a rather sad story when the high point for the protagonists has them displaced from their farm and home, living as hobos on the side of the highway.

I think that optimism and my own sense of completely unfounded hope, came only from my desire for that not to be the case for the Joads. Even early on in the novel I felt I had developed a deep connection with the family and their plight. I don't think I've felt a deeper connection to a character (or characters) since Gone with the Wind.

An interesting story and well-rounded characters would be enough for me to rank this book quite highly, but when you add John Steinbeck's beautiful writing, you have a really special book. There's great language, vivid descriptions, and fantastically written (and oddly comprehensible) dialogue between the family (fambily). Too often when a writer tries to re-create slang or less than perfect English it can be almost impossible to understand what is going on (see Faulkner). But Steinbeck's dialogue is easy to follow, and his ability to write such poor syntax so clearly, allows the reader to further understand the characters.

Another interesting technique was Steinbeck's use of short chapters, usually only three or four pages, that would foreshadow the Joad's story with a broader, more general telling of what was going to happen. Every odd numbered chapter was like this, as if he was giving us a heads up as to the kind of things so many people were experiencing, before detailing but one family's experience.

This was a technique that was actually widely criticized at the time, but I found worked quite well. See Herbert Sturz's story about writing to John Steinbeck about these chapters and the response he received here.

But most of the criticism for this book, and there was a lot of it despite its commercial and critical success, focused around the themes of socialism, found throughout. Critics suggested the book was merely a propaganda tool, written only to popularize his own political views. Many school boards banned the book, and some even went as far as to publicly burn it.

I find that so ironic, and can hear the cries right now. 'Socialism is an infringement on our freedom,' which is immediately followed by 'now let's burn this book!', completely forgetting the right to free speech.

The irony goes further too. While most of the ideas presented in the book would have been quite foreign to the American population in the 1930's, today, most of the things suggested in The Grapes of Wrath have become entrenched ways of doing things; labor unions, minimum wage, social security, public housing. I suppose that's kind of ironic too; most Americans don't realize they're already socialists, and have been for decades.

While most of the controversy about this book seems to have died down in the past twenty years, there is still the odd person out there who criticizes The Grapes of Wrath as propaganda. And I'll bet most of these people list Atlas Shrugged as their favorite book of all time. Now that's irony!

I have 11 books from the list our from the library right now, and am still debating which I am going to read next. Right now I'm leaning toward The French Lieutenant's Woman and Native Son. This will probably be a decision made right before puck drop.

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