Literary Pop: The Grapes of Wrath

Author:  John Steinbeck
Nationality: American
Year:  1939

Muscles aching to work, minds aching to create – this is man.”

Perhaps one of the best-known novels of John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize-winning bibliography, The Grapes of Wrath is (like 1937’s Of Mice and Men) set mostly in California during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  I had originally intended upon picking up something a little lighter after my desperate struggle with James Joyce, but something about this meaty book of 500 or so pages drew me in and, burning through the first hundred that night, I was sold.  Although I didn’t manage to maintain anywhere near that pace for the rest of the novel (some of us have to work, you know), I finished the book in about ten days overall.

The book begins by following young Tom Joad immediately following his parole from prison, having served four years for killing a man in a fight.  Tom returns to his family farm in Sallisaw, Oklahoma to find it abandoned and the family about to make the 1500 JohnSteinbeck_TheGrapesOfWrath mile trip to California in search of a new life picking cotton, peaches and the titular grapes in the Golden State.  The party soon heads for the road, consisting of Tom, his younger brother Al, older brother Noah, Ma and Pa, Granma and Grampa, Uncle John, pregnant sister Rose of Sharon and her husband Connie, youngest siblings Ruthie and Winfield, and former preacher Jim Casy.  It soon becomes clear that this bizarre bunch are by no means unusual on Highway 66, the main road to the West; the Joads are in fact merely the central characters of the much wider narrative of Depression-era migration in the USA.  They drive day after day across town and desert until reaching their destination, which offers them yet no rest.  Along with thousands of other families they are driven from camp to Hooverville to government camp, starving, desperate for work and wholly unwelcome and abused.  Various members of the party drop out along the way, and the book closes at the approach of winter, bringing with it the torrential rain and hopeless prospect of even less work.  We leave the five remaining Joads sheltering in a mostly-empty barn, having been forced to abandon their possessions to escape a flood.  The chances of them surviving until spring are grim.

The novel is, overall, pretty hopeless.  All the Joads seem to do is fight on and work, and all they ever get in return is hunger and pain.  This is I suppose what it must have been like for countless families in the US in the early 1930s;  over 1 million families lost their farms between the years of 1930 and 1934.  Steinbeck, living and writing in the era himself, does an excellent job of portraying the unrelenting hopefulness of these most hopeless of people.  Published while the Depression still had a hold on the country, the book was hard-hitting and contained a number of Steinbeck’s own controversial views regarding the abysmal treatment of the poor migrants.  Nevertheless, it has been wholeheartedly accepted as one of the greatest American Novels, and to my mind deserves the praise it gets in full.

Although The Grapes of Wrath is a little long, you shouldn’t let this deter you from reading it.  Steinbeck’s style is simple (in a good way) and eminently readable.  The depressing subject matter is dealt with in an remarkably light way without losing any of the gravity it deserves.  I thought this was an excellent book, and I’m certainly going to put more Steinbeck higher on my to-read list.

My Rating: 8/10

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