The Grapes of Wrath

Saturday, 13 November 2010
I'm going to blog about The Grapes of Wrath before I read the many online reviews. I don't know how I made it through 10 years of school without reading this. My copy was 50 cents at a thrift store and from the first page, I was hooked.

Image from Black Cat Books

The book is by John Steinbeck (his East of Eden is also a favorite). If you have never had the pleasure of reading one of his vintage treats, add it to your Christmas list.

The Grapes of Wrath is set in the 1930s during the migration to California but is eerily similar to current day events. The narrative follows the life of a farmer family from Oklahoma. They have to lease their long-owned land to the bank to afford to eat and eventually the bank comes in and forecloses. The land is worked over by "modern machines" and the Joad family stays until one of the tractors knocks their 100 year old house off its foundation.

Steinbeck is absolutely incredible in his use of descriptive language. As a wanna-be writer, I admire the way he makes a reader feel like she is in the scene he paints with words. I am also impressed how he captures the linguistics of the farmers.

Pa (talking about preparing a pig before they leave for California, Chapter 10): "We gotta figger when to start. Sooner the better. What we gotta do 'fore we go is get them pigs slaughtered an' in salt, an' pack our stuff an' go. Quicker the better, now."

One of the best monologues in the book comes from the Preacher in Chapter 8 (who has lost his religion). The family asks him to say grace over breakfast and after giving the disclaimer that he is no longer a preacher, they bow their heads and he says:

"I been in the hills, thinkin', almost you might say like Jesus went into the wilderness to think His way out of a mess of troubles..." "Seems like Jesus got all messed up with his troubles, and He couldn't figure nothin' out, an' He got to feelin' what the hell good is it all, an' what's the use fightin' an figurin'. Got tired, got good an' tired, an' His spirit all wore out. Jus' about come to the conclusion, the hell with it. An' so He went off into the wilderness..." "I ain't sayin' I'm like Jesus, but I got tired like Him, an' I got mixed up like Him, an' I went into the wilderness like Him, without no campin' stuff. Nighttime I'd lay on my back an' watch the sun come up; midday I'd look out from a hill at the rollin' dry country; evenin' I'd foller the sun down. Sometimes I'd pray like I always done. On'y I couldn' figure what I was prayin' to or for. There was the hills, an' there was me, an' we wasn't so separate no more. We was one thing. An' that one thing was holy..." "An' I got thinkin', on'y it wasn't thinkin', it was deeper down than thinkin'. I got thinkin' how we was holy when we was one thing, an' mankin' was holy when it was one thing. An'  it on'y got unholy when one mis'able little fella got the bit in his teeth an' run off his own way, kickin' an' draggin' an' fightin'. Fella like that bust the holiness. But when they're all workin' together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang- that's right, that's holy. An' then I got to thinkin' I don't even know what I mean by holy..." "I can't say no grace like I use' ta say. I'm glad of the holiness of breakfast. I'm glad there's love here. That's all."

The family fights a bitter battle across the country in one old truck. They believe they'll find green land and good jobs in California. When they arrive, they discover the truth -- men are paid as little as possible to pick fruit by big-time farmers and companies. There are more workers than jobs so they can be paid pennies because men will do anything to feed their families. People go hungry, they have no place to live, no jobs and a lack of sanitary conditions. The rich get richer and the poor die. Grandma and Grandpa Joad die on the journey and the 19 year old daughter Rose of Sharon who was happy loses her husband and her unborn child.

Why is this a good read you may wonder? It isn't a feel-good book, obviously, but the story seems bigger than just a novel. The story is the struggle of every family that doesn't have enough. For every couple that attempts to achieve the American dream the right way, Steinbeck's story gives the reality that it isn't always possible. He writes for the little guy. The man who had a farm, was trying to raise a family and lost everything. The man pushes on with hope and he reaches the end, the West coast and still cannot find work to feed his family. The corporations hate him. The powerful people call him an "Oakie" and offer no help when his son literally starves. Law enforcement hate the "Oakies" and arrest them and beat them for made up charges. How sad to get to that point as humans. (Reminds me of the immigration fight in the U.S. now.)

The ending is one I'll never forget. I puzzled over it all day. What does it mean that she "smiled mysteriously?" You'll have to read the book because I don't want to spoil it completely but here's what I think -- Rose of Sharon was unimportant the entire story. She had dreams and plans for herself. When she lost the baby, she was again on the back burner. She is the one needed at the end. She is able to save a life and she is pleased, proud of her power.


Jinjajam said...

I loved reading this ...just so 'up my street' wanna go get da book !

Denae said...

I have to send it to you and I'll get it when I come to SA to visit. ;) You'll love it.

Chris F. said...

In order to not write a long article, I will just say I enjoy both of these books very much.
I also enjoyed the movie version with Henry Fonda and the 1981 miniseries starring Jane Seymour.

Annie said...

I love this book. Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors. His linguistic knowledge is outstanding. You should also read "Of Mice and Men" if you haven't.