Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Or, "Look, Megan Read a Classic!"

Yes, this happens once in a while. I actually sit down and read a book that has gained some notice as a classic of literature. Usually, it's my book group's fault. I require a little extra motivation and explanation to attempt a classic, so when the book group that I on again off again participate in reads one that I already have on my shelf, I attempt to join in. That is how it came to be that I killed almost all of September reading The Grapes of Wrath which, I think, would throw a curve at the speediest of readers. You see, I like a good depressing book, but The Grapes of Wrath tends toward the downright frustrating, and September was a frustrating, depressing sort of month to start with, without dealing with the Joad family's Great Depression misfortunes.

Once upon a time, I read Steinbeck's East of Eden, and to this day, should you ask me to tell you my favorite books, it would make the list. In high school english classes whenever I was handed a reading list of classics from which I could choose my own book, rather than having a specific one assigned, I had an astonishing habit of picking books for myself that I loathed far more than the ones specifically assigned. I don't know if it was pure bad luck or if I just didn't know my tastes so well back then, but it was almost a guarantee that if I chose the classic myself, it would surely not be a good match for me. Then, one time, I chose of East of Eden, a doorstopper of a book that everyone thought I was crazy for attempting, and I somehow loved it. I remember tuning out everything going on in the cafeteria and even reading it at lunch, so absorbed was I in the story. Having enjoyed E of E so much, I've long meant to read The Grapes of Wrath, it being, arguably, Steinbeck's more widely appreciated novel. I'm sad to report that it didn't have the effect that E of E did on me, but that's not to say that I, too, didn't appreciate it.

(Ahem - be aware, there are probably a few spoilers in here somewhere...)

In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck tells the story of one family, the Joads, who have been evicted from their dry Oklahoma land during the Great Depression and have been forced to choose to migrate to California where there are supposedly jobs for the taking in a veritable land of milk and honey. Steinbeck introduces us to the Joads as they hopefully make ready to travel the width of the country in a cobbled together jalopy with what little money they were able to get from selling off most of their belongings. In dialogue rich with realistic dialect, we come to know Tom, recently paroled from prison for killing a man; his Pa, a man nearly beaten down from his circumstances; Ma, a woman with an iron will who will stop at nothing to keep her family from falling apart; his sister pregnant Rose of Sharon whose husband is full of dreams for their future; and Uncle John who has spent a lifetime trying to face or escape his imagined sin. Through the pages, readers come to an intimate knowledge of the family as they head west helping who they can though they are struggling to make it themselves. It's perhaps because readers come to know and love the family in all its strengths and its failings that makes The Grapes of Wrath a difficult read to swallow.

Each time it seems that the Joads might finally catch a break, the work dries up, the stream floods, the picking doesn't pay enough for even one decent meal. Tragedy follows in their footsteps, and it's infuriating because despite the fact that you know somewhere in your mind that things aren't on track to work out, Steinbeck's populist rhetoric and his assurances that the men are still angry, and therefore not beaten, gives readers reason to hope that things can and will turn around. There is always a growing impression that perhaps finally the men are ready to combine their great numbers to force the changes that will give them the chance at life they thought they were getting when they set out for California.

There is absolutely no subtlety nor any particular artfulness to be found in the Joads' story. Never for a moment do readers need to wonder where Steinbeck stands on the events that are taking place. Steinbeck is more than eager to hammer his points home as he preachily derides the corporate farmers whose tractors and hired hands eliminate the connection between men and the land that sustains them. He flays California landowners whose vast fields of hardy crops do nothing for the migrants starving for lack of work. He paints heavy handed pictures of people starving in Hoovervilles even while farmers discard crops to to maintain prices.

If, indeed, there is art in Steinbeck's American classic, it lives in the alternating chapters where Steinbeck interrupts his telling of the Joads' journey, to generalize the very much shared experience of the thousands of migrants who fled to California during the Depression. In them, he captures the haggling for a junk car, the staggering number of people heading west fed only on dreams, the growing anger of powerless men, the etiquette of camping, and even the dances that give struggling families a break, however brief, from their sufferings. In these chapters, Steinbeck lets the many voices be heard, he paints pictures with dialogue, and his words even carry the very rhythm of the dance.

There are many things to like and to dislike about The Grapes of Wrath. It is preachy, heavy handed, depressing, frustrating, perhaps even exaggerated, but it is also a profound, and perhaps even hopeful story, of a family's strength in the face of unbelievable struggle. Steinbeck's writing gives poetry to populism, and even now, The Grapes of Wrath has the enduring power to cause the righteous anger that can bring about change that so much of society still desperately needs.


  1. I didn't find this one preachy or heavy handed at all! I read it a couple years ago, thinking I'd hate it before I started, but it was one of those books I simply couldn't put down. Maybe it's because I have a personal connection - my family came from Oklahoma during the depression, so a lot of the cultural aspects, right down to the language patterns and slang, were spot on - but reading this was like reading family history and it hit me on a very personal level. I've read a few others by Steinbeck, and while I enjoyed East of Eden, neither EoE or any other book has had the impact on me that Grapes of Wrath did. My cousin read it and felt the same way. In fact, she said that it was books like that one that made her want to give up the dream of being a writer, because every single word in that book was perfect, so completely composed, a work of genius.

  2. most of Steinbeck's novels are somewhat depressing, but I do love his writing.

    Wishing you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. I love East of Eden. It's one of those books that I don't have a problem flipping through over and over again. I have't read Grapes of Wrath yet but it is on my tbr list. Great review.

  4. Amanda - I think the one thing my whole book group agreed on was that the heavy handedness of it all. It wasn't that so much that I minded though as just how frustrating it was to see the Joad family come up against road blocks at every turn. That said, there were many moments that despite my frustration with the story itself, I was blown away by the writing. His writing in dialect was pitch perfect, and I *love* it when a writer can give me sense of how people speak without seeming exaggerated or cheesy. I loved (!) the "inter" chapters and grinned like an idiot when I realized I could practically tap my foot to the rhythm of the writing of the dance scene. That was absolutely genius! I can see how the way that the book tied directly into your family history would make it that much more powerful for you. It's an incredible feeling when a great book can tap into your own personal history. :)

    Diane - He does write so well, but you really don't want to read his books when you're feeling down! LOL

    Vasilly - I'm not a re-reader, but I definitely plan to give East of Eden another go someday. Hope you get to The Grapes of Wrath - it's not my favorite Steinbeck, but it's worth the read, and his talents as a writer are on full display!