In The Grapes of Wrath (published 1939), John Steinbeck captured the lives of his contemporary Americans, those living at or below the poverty line in the midst of the Great Depression. While the Joads’ migrant story was moving and I came to love many of the family members, The Grapes of Wrath is so much more than the story of one family. In between the narrative sequences about the Joad family, Steinbeck writes more general descriptive chapters about the fate of masses of migrants uprooted from their homes during the Dust Bowl and forced to search for work in California amidst thousands of other displaced workers. The Grapes of Wrath is about an entire people of otherwise unrecognized poor in our nation’s history.
This is why we keep reading it, even 70 years later. While the plight of poor workers has hopefully improved by today, the unnoticed poor still need a voice. Reading The Grapes of Wrath gives historical perspective, but it also reminds us that there is a majority that is often not represented in literature.
When I finished reading East of Eden (by John Steinbeck, published 1952) for the first time, I was bubbling over with excitement about the themes, the wonderful writing, the incredibly described setting, and the beloved characters. I couldn’t wait to find someone to talk to about it. As a result, I ended up starting my book blog Rebecca Reads, simply because I wanted a community (besides my family members, who had no comments) that would respond with excitement about my love for a newly discovered book.
I’ve put off reading John Steinbeck’s most well known and read classic for fear it wouldn’t measure up. As a result, as I did read it over the past few weeks, I found myself incessantly comparing it East of Eden’s majestic depth and epic nature. In most respects, I wasn’t disappointed with The Grapes of Wrath; the only ways in which I was disappointed was in the ways it did not fully measure up to the spectacular brilliance of East of Eden. I’ve decided that East of Eden is simply the touchstone Steinbeck work for me; I can’t expect anything else by Steinbeck to move me in quite the same way.
I was very impressed with East of Eden from page one because of the descriptive scenes, and The Grapes of Wrath was no different. The descriptive “everyman” chapters described a land that is no more, and made it come alive. Even mundane things, like a turtle walking along the highway, are brought to life. The Joads – Tom, the rebellious, unrepentant murder; Ruthie and Winfield, the children; Ma Joad, the backbone of the family – seemed like real people in the midst of a tragedy. I kept hoping that something positive would happen for them; alas, I knew from the start that this would not be a happy book.
The following paragraph has spoilers.
Yet, even as tragedy after tragedy struck the family, I was impressed with the good. The Wilsons and other families on the road pitched in to help keep people fed. Jim Casy, a former preacher who realized his own hypocrisy, gave himself to the police in order to let the rest of the group escape. The government camp was full of people wanting to get along, share, and otherwise live in peace. Tom ultimately had the goal of representing the down trodden as a group leader. And, finally, Rose of Sharon likewise gave of herself in a way that she could to sustain life.
So, although The Grapes of Wrath is a book about the hardships of the masses, the depressing existence lived by hundreds of thousands during the Great Depression, it’s also about a little bit of hope in human nature. People joined together when they could.
In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream. (chapter 17)
I think it was Steinbeck’s dream that by sharing the Joads’ story, which was based on experiences by people he’d interviewed, we’d all somehow become one in America again. He was writing to his contemporaries in the midst of the Great Depression, but I think it’s a message we all still need to remember.
There is so much in this book. Someday I’ll revisit it, so I can further flesh out the ambience in Steinbeck’s creation. In the mean time, here are some other stops for The Grapes of Wrath on the Classics Circuit tour. It was the most popular book for this particular tour. Links below are to the post on The Grapes of Wrath (except for the one who hasn’t posted yet).