Review: The Grapes of Wrath

I hadn’t read any John Steinbeck, but this title was certainly familiar to me as being about the ‘dust bowl’ and the ‘Okies’ of the 1930’s, at time with which I was only vaguely familiar.  So I bought a copy.

Wikipedia says: “John Ernst Steinbeck Jr (February 27, 1902 – December 20, 1968) was an American author. He won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” He has been called “a giant of American letters,” and many of his works are considered classics of Western literature. During his writing career, he authored 33 books, including 16 novels, six non-fiction books, and two collections of short stories. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Grapes of Wrath (1939) is considered Steinbeck’s masterpiece and part of the American literary canon. In the first 75 years after it was published, it sold 14 million copies. Most of Steinbeck’s work is set in California. His works frequently explored the themes of fate and injustice, especially as applied to downtrodden or everyman protagonists.

“Steinbeck graduated from Salinas High School in 1919 and went on to study English Literature at Stanford University, leaving without a degree in 1925. He travelled to New York City where he took odd jobs while trying to write. When he failed to publish his work, he returned to California and worked in 1928 as a tour guide and caretaker at Lake Tahoe, where he met Carol Henning, his first wife. They married in January 1930 in Los Angeles, where, with friends, he attempted to make money by manufacturing plaster mannequins.  When their money ran out six months later due to a slow market, Steinbeck and Carol moved back to Pacific Grove, California to a cottage owned by his father. The elder Steinbeck gave John free housing, paper for his manuscripts, and loans that allowed him to write without looking for work. During the Great Depression, Steinbeck bought a small boat, and later claimed that he was able to live on the fish and crab that he gathered from the sea, and fresh vegetables from his garden and local farms. When those sources failed, Steinbeck and his wife accepted welfare, and on rare occasions, stole bacon from the local produce market. Whatever food they had, they shared with their friends. Carol became the model for Mary Talbot in Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row.”

Steinback was married three times and died in New York City, aged 65, of heart failure; he had been a life-long smoker.

John Steinbeck

This novel is set during the Great Depression of the 1930’s in Oklahoma, and, later in California.  Its principal characters are the Joads, a family of share-croppers whose borrowed 40 acres are devastated by the severe drought, which results in their decision to load their possessions and the entire family into an old car which has been converted into a truck. Tom Joad has just been released from prison after serving a term for manslaughter.  He returns to the ramshackle family home to find them preparing to leave, like so many others (300,000), for California, where handbills suggest that there is a great demand for farm labourers.  The family consists of his Ma and Pa, Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle John, brothers, Al and Noah, pregnant sister, Rose of Sharon, her husband, Connie, the young ones, Ruthie and Winfield, and an itinerant preacher, Jim Casy, who has lost his faith.

As the Joads drive west Grandpa dies and is buried; the family experiences hardships, but when the get to California, things get worse.  Grandma dies, it is very difficult to find work paying more than 5 cents an hour, police harassment of the migrants is a recurring problem, the large land owners unscrupulously drive down wages, and the local residents reject the ‘Okies’ as uncivilised beings.  Noah drifts off on his own.  Jim Casy becomes a union organiser and is killed by a deputy, who is killed by Tom, who then separates from the family for fear of being arrested. Connie departs the family and his wife who gives birth to a stillborn child.  Al finds a sixteen year old girl that he intends to marry and stays with her.  The campsite which the Joads – what remains of them – floods, and the remains of the family, Ma, Pa, Uncle John, Rose of Sharon, Ruthie and Winfield, are forced to take shelter in a barn with a boy and his dying father.

The story, which reflects the experiences of many economic migrants from the dust bowl to California, reveals the hopes, fears, resilience, and love of human beings under extreme stress.  It is difficult to read it without feeling pity for the thousands of migrants housed in makeshift camps around the world.  The characters, the setting and the circumstances are extremely real, and one keeps hoping to find some relief for the characters in the pages ahead, but none is forthcoming.  This is a tremendously powerful book!  It is long: 534 pages, but nearly impossible to put down.  I sometimes felt that some of the narrative could have been pared back, but even that extra narrative contributed to the story.  It is, for me, difficult to believe that twelve people could have travelled well over 1500 miles in a wheezy, small pick-up truck that was also loaded with mattresses, cooking equipment, and personal possessions, but the impossibility adds to the family’s evident predicament.

This is a must read novel!

 

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