The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

#BeatTheBacklist book 2
2017 book 2

Format: Print (paperback)
Length: 455 pages

I joined a book club a few months ago.  This month we read The Grapes of Wrath.  I don’t read many classics.  I always mean to, but then a book with spaceships or time travel will grab my attention instead.  If it weren’t for this book club, I probably never would have read the book Springsteen references in his ballad, Ghost of Tom Joad.

What It’s About (no spoilers)

The Joad family has worked the land for generations, but due to the droughts and dust storms of the early 1930s they are unable to pay their rent and are evicted from the farm that is the only home they have ever known.  Along with hundreds of thousands of other displaced people they head for California.  There they hope to find work and a fresh start.

Three generations of Joads head out along with a drifting ex-preacher named Jim Casy.  If thirteen people crammed into an overloaded truck with all of their belongings sounds like an inauspicious beginning, that’s because it is.  Their journey west is filled with hardships and Ma Joad’s goal of keeping the family together is impossible to meet, but their basic goodness and faith in their fellows is never shaken.

We meet the protagonist, Tom Joad, upon his release from prison for a violent crime.  But Tom is a scrapper, not a monster.  He is a dedicated son and friend with perhaps a bit too much willingness to fight to defend himself or those he loves.  The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the westward journey of the family as well as Tom’s personal spiritual journey. Tom is as surprised to find his eventual passion as he was to find his family home empty upon his release from jail.

The Grapes of Wrath is a primer on classism, poverty, and injustice.  It is a philosophical treatise and a working man’s manifesto.  It is a quintessentially American novel that exposes the fallacy of the pull yourself up by your bootstraps myth to which so many Americans fall prey.

What I Thought

As a proud lefty pinko progressive, I appreciated Steinbeck’s portrayal of capitalist exploitation.   The Joads suspect from the beginning that they are up against an enemy that they are not capable of beating, but they are hopeful that their suspicions are false.

As a reader, I found the book difficult to get into.  It is long, and slow, and the dialogue is written in a deep southern dialect that required me to sound out and translate some words.  It is impressive, but it disrupted my suspension of disbelief.  About every other chapter takes the reader away from the narrative of the Joads’ story too.  These are some of the most beautifully written chapters, but again they jarred me out of the flow and slowed me down.

Some of the characters are fantastic, but most of them are more a type than a person.  I like my characters flawed and with all of their insecurities exposed.  Steinbeck’s characters have concerns about the future and the present, a couple have regrets about the past, but most of them fall short of feeling like real people.  Granpa is a charicature of an ornery old firebrand, Ma is the stoic matriarch, Ruthie is a brat, Al is a romeo, Rose of Sharon is the maiden turned mother, and so on.

The communities fall short of feeling like real communities of people too.  In the camps and caravans of the starving masses nobody attempts to steal from or con the Joads except for prospective employers.  It would be nice to believe that this is realistic, but it doesn’t ring true.  Steinbeck’s message of worker unity and solidarity doesn’t allow for admission that sometimes people we trust will betray us and that desperation may drive an otherwise good person to do awful things. My favorite character, Jim Casy, is a former preacher who has lost his faith.  When describing his falling out with religious doctrine he says “There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue.  There’s just stuff people do.”  Poor people, rich people… In the real world we all do stuff that a judgemental person might classify as sin or virtue, but in Steinbeck’s world bad acts are the exclusive domain of the wealthy and those caught up on the wrong side of the capitalist system.  The Joads learn that “If you’re in trouble, or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.”  I like to believe that there are many, many exceptions to this rule.  Even if that does diminish my lefty pinko cred.

Even though it was a difficult read and even though I wanted a little more complexity out of many of the characters, I am glad that I joined a book club that prompted me to read the Grapes of Wrath.  I am also glad to be able to cross off another book on my #BeatTheBacklist challenge posted here.  Now bring on some space ships.

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2 thoughts on “The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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