One of the John Steinbeck ‘must reads’ that is also on reading lists worldwide as an example of Depression literature, a book able to encapsulate a time and a feeling. Because of the subject matter it is for some people a drepressing hard read but it is a book that must be taken through to the finish, even if there is not a ‘light at the end of the tunnel moment’.
The book is set in the 1930s with the farmers being driven off their land as the small tenant farmers are replaced by large tractor cultivated cotton farms. In response to hand bills advertising work tens of thousands abandon the land worked by their families for three generations and buy old cars and trucks and head for the West and the promised land of California. Once there they find Hooverville camps, hatred and very little work. On the way they find death, hunger and a growing sense of awareness about the problems. Steinbeck tells the story of that migration by focusing on the Joad family and the people they come across.
Is the book well written?
the book is almost like a film script, with the Joad story being interspersed with stories of the exploitation and hate from different angles, so you get inside the mind of a car salesman ripping off the migrants as they leave, some of the Californians resisting the arrival of the migrants and you get a quick update on what things like the flood near the end of the book meant for large numbers of people. By breaking up the Joad family story it gives the book a momentum it needs and it takes away from what otherwise could be an incredibly depressing tone.
is it worth reading?
If you finish this book without being moved and left feeling angry then you can’t be human. Although the tip of the iceberg that is exactly the sort of feelings the Joads and thousands like them had so the book has succeeded in making you understand what they went through. The setting might be the depression but the prejudices and hatred that people can show to each other as well as the friendship and charity are relevant to today and that is why this is a book that exists beyond its time. If there had been more understanding and more tolerance things would have been very different for the Joads.
As with some of the other books that are associated with this author and this time there are other paths you can take which are mentioned at the end of the review of Cannery Row, posted earlier this week. If you want to theme it, which is the way I tend to go then you could add in some more Steinbeck, Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell to get another take on the camaraderie and hostility experienced in poverty and search the web for other tales linked to this period like Jack Conroy’s The disinherited, which I just bought from a bookseller in the US and should get next week.
Version read – Heinemann modern novel series