22 May 2021

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I spent the last few months stockpiling book reviews so that I could finally tackle John Steinbeck's classic The Grapes of Wrath (~500 pages). My supervisor in grad school leant me her copy of East of Eden and it is easily now one of my favourite fiction books. I love Steinbeck's writing style (how simple it is) and the stories he wants to tell. The Grapes of Wrath quickly got added to my list of must-read-classics.

I was originally attracted to reading this because I wanted to learn more about the Dust Bowl. The book is focused on the Joad family who are forced to leave their home in Oklahoma and travel to California in search of work. Right off the top Steinbeck makes sure it's clear the banks are behind this forced homelessness: "The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it." Families have to watch their homes be taken from them and literally bulldozed down while some refuse to leave. 

Steinbeck immediately condemns capitalism and it made me even more attracted to him and his moustache. So much of this book is about injustice and how people are dehumanized by capitalism. 

They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don't get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat." 

I have always really loved long-sprawling fiction, and The Grapes of Wrath doesn't disappoint. You follow the Joads as they slowly travel across the country. I felt so much anxiety during their travel, and found myself keeping track of how much bread and potatoes they had left. Joan Didion writes a lot about her ancestors who travelled to California via wagon, and I can see how Steinbeck would have been a huge influence on her.

How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can't scare him - he has known a fear beyond every other." 

John Steinbeck

Characters are lost during the journey and the Joads are warned over and over that their arrival in California will not be welcome. Residents despised the incoming travelers and started referring to them as "Oakies." The small tent communities of travelers are frequently visited by union busters to keep them from organizing, and their pay is constantly undermined and halved.

The first 100 pages were a bit of a struggle for me because Steinbeck writes how the Joads speak. This was quite different than East of Eden which I felt read more naturally to me. Still, you get to feel like you know each individual member of the Joad family, and you sympathize with each. 

My boyfriend had to read this in high school, and told me it has one of the most memorable endings of any American novel. He was completely right, and I've been asking everyone if I can share it... It is completely bleak, but also extremely moving. If you love American literature then you can't go wrong reading this. It truly blows my mind that this was written in the 1940s. Steinbeck's voice has always felt so modern to me, and I am sad I've now read two of his most famous works.

I picked up his nonfiction A Russian Journal but will probably re-read East of Eden in the next few years.

No comments:

Post a Comment