The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck
A characteristic of reaching a certain age is the urge to compile lists of things you want to do before you shuffle off this mortal coil. For those who need some assistance in sorting out the wheat from the chaff there are handy books you can buy, usually cheerily entitled 1,000 Things/Books/Places To Do/Read/Visit Before You Die. On my reading list are a number of books which I really ought to read but for one reason or another I have never got round to. Prominent on the list was Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, an oversight which I have now rectified.
The first thing that struck me was how relevant to today’s world is a tale ostensibly about dispossessed farming folk from the dust bowls of Oklahoma making their way to the so-called promised land of California. One of the images of the second decade of the 21st century is the exodus of desperate people from war-torn countries seeking a better life for themselves and their families. And like our modern-day migrants the Joads find that wherever they turn there are people out to rip them off – I found the staccato used-car chapter particularly moving – determined to look after themselves come what may – the chapter highlighting the blind indifference of Joe Davis’ son to the misery he is causing his neighbours is a tour de force – and, anyway, the promised land, promoted by unscrupulous agents looking for cheap labour, is no better than what they left. A different kind of shit but shit nonetheless.
What also struck me was how radical the book was. Steinbeck pulled no punches. The ordinary person is at the mercy of powerful, uncaring forces – banks, big business, faceless entrepreneurs. The only way they can resist is through collective action, by organising their own affairs. Even then, they are merely mitigating their conditions, not taking direct control. The tractor, which brutally knocks down the homesteads and introduces more efficient farming practices, is just one symbol of the powerlessness of the people to resist. These are themes as relevant today as they were during the Depression.
The turtle that makes a slightly puzzling appearance early on in the novel is also highly symbolic. It plods on determinedly to its journey’s destination. It too is at the mercy of machinery – the act of crossing a road is highly dangerous for such a stately, slow-moving creature. Is it too fanciful to think that despite all this the seed lodged in its leg is the symbol of new life, a new beginning? Where there is life there is hope and for all the gloom and misery and suffering in the book, there are moments where humanity’s natural instincts and better elements give us hope of something better, no more so than in the controversial ending.
Structurally, the book has a longer chapter of narrative followed by a shorter chapter which has a wider world-view of what is happening and retains this format pretty much throughout. The latter are almost like service stations, allowing you to recharge your emotional tanks before the next assault, but also allowing Steinbeck through the use of lyricism, imagery and potted histories to make the reader aware of the bigger picture – softening us up for the next punch in the ribs in the Joad’s story. Very effective.
For me, this was a wonderful book with a timeless quality and a relevance for today. Shame on me for only discovering it now but Tom Joad and the stoical Ma will long remain in my memory. As Steinbeck wrote, “You’re bound to get idears if you go thinkin’ about stuff.”