Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Grapes of Wrath

Reading Of Mice And Men in high school pretty much killed any interest I might have had in reading any more Steinbeck.  "Boring and depressing" was my teenage reaction to that novel.  But the older I get, the more often I discover the beauty, or the skill, or the power in some work that I didn't appreciate back then.  The Last of the Mohicans is an example--hated that in school, but loved it when I read it again a couple of years ago with my daughter.  Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is one that, being by Steinbeck, I wouldn't have opened, except that James at Following Pulitzer reviewed it so glowingly last year that I was moved to put it on my TBR list.  (And my father loved it, which should have made me give it a chance a long time ago!)

Anyway.  Now I love it too, and better late than never, I suppose.  It's the story of the Joad family of Sallisaw, Oklahoma, whose farm is repossessed during the Depression.  They take to the road, hoping to find work picking fruit in California.  My two strong takeaways from this book are the very moving characterizations, and Steinbeck's apparent desire to get a social message across--the crying need for social safety nets such as unions and government programs.

Surely it's a sign of skillful characterization that I actually grew to love this family and suffered along with them through all their trials.  They were by no means angelic;  they were more interesting than that.  Ma Joad's iron will is tempered occasionally by self doubt.  Tough son Tom's quick temper is balanced by his integrity and passion for justice.  Ex-preacher Casy, who has given up Christianity, eventually performs an act of self-sacrifice that is obviously meant to be Christ-like.  I felt I was on a journey with these complex and interesting human beings, and was sorry to part with them at the end.

It's clear that Steinbeck was pro-union, and it's really hard to dispute, reading this book, the need for migrant workers to have some bargaining power when they faced starvation wages, squalid living conditions, and blacklisting by large farm corporations if they objected.  I think it's easy to forget that within living memory, without government safety nets, Americans sometimes starved to death.  (James, the blogger mentioned above, made this point in his review last year also.  It's such a large theme in the novel that I don't know how anyone reading it could fail to be struck by it, and I certainly was.) 

After finishing The Grapes of Wrath, I watched Ken Burns' documentary Dust Bowl.  I'd highly, highly recommend that as a companion to this book.  It provides a detailed but accessible explanation of the "dust bowl" phenomenon and its origins--a man-made ecological disaster.  And it includes plenty of photographs, which I was constantly mentally matching to characters in the book.  I also watched the 1940 movie starring Henry Fonda.  Although the film is a truncated version of the book, and left out some important but controversial-for-the-time elements, the casting was genius and the acting superb.  Watch it too.

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