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
This is the final stretch. Normal spoiler alert here: if you haven’t read as far then please do not read on it will take away the enjoyment of the book for you.
We left things with the family finding work in a pear picking farm but Tom got involved in a fight with Casy and his trikebreakers and some farm guards and breaks his nose and hits a man. There is a sense that no matter where the family goes to it will not find comfort.
Bullet points between pages 340 – 400
* Tom it appears did kill a man and the family leave the fruit picking and drive until they come to cotton picking fields.
* Tom hides out in the undergrowth to avoid detection
* Al gets engaged to a girl, Aggie, that he has been seeing at the cotton picking camp
* Ruthie spills the beans about her brother and so Ma goes to see Tom, gives him seven dollars, and asks him to go far away
* The rains come and the work stops Steinbeck uses a chapter to describe the death and despair it brings to the migrant community
* Rose of Sharon goes into labour supported by Ma with Pa out trying to get a flood barrier built to stop the box cars in the cotton pickers camp flooding
* The baby is stillborn and the flood barrier is broken by a falling tree and the cars and trucks are flooded out
* They end up running for cover in a barn where they come across a man and his son. The man is starving and Rose of Sharon breastfeeds him to stave off death.
A couple of times in the book there is a suggestion that as long as the people can get angry then they will have the energy to survive. Ma mentions it about Pa but it is one of Steinbeck’s many inter-chapters (as the commentary by Michael Millgate at the start of this version describes them) that it is spelt out:
“…the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath”. (at the end of chap 29)
What Grapes of Wrath contains is a power and a tragedy that you take away with you and mull over. Hopefully after some of that mulling over my review will be able to articulate how the book makes me feel.
A full review will appear tomorrow and next week to move away from just seeing what US writers had to write about in the interwar years I’m going to start reading Journey to the end of the night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine.
Normal spoiler alert here: if you haven’’t read as far then please do not read on it will take away the enjoyment of the book.
We left things with the family in a Hooverville camp full of migrants struggling to understand who to believe -– those who are moving North because there is no work and those looking for something in the local area. The sense of bewilderment is made worse by the collective exhaustion the family feels.
Bullet points from pages 240 -– 340
* Dropping like flies Connie decides to abandon the family and his pregnant wife Rose of Sharon
* Tom ends up in an encounter with a Policeman and Casy takes the blame and is driven away
* That night the family heads off just before the local farmers come in and burn the Hooverville camp claiming it is full of ““reds””
* They drive South to the government camp and find a space and friendliness
* Tom discovers that the local farmers are hoping to disrupt the camp because people are “starting to feel human”” and might get organised against the inequality
* After failing to find work they head North and end up in a farm where there are strikers picketing outside
* Tom goes out to see the strikers, and discovers they are being led by Casy, they are then attacked by men who kill Casy and break Tom’s nose. In the struggle Tom hits a man and believes he might have killed him.
Even at this stage what amazes you is the optimism that Ma in particular still carries around hoping that they will get a house and steady work. Leaving the camp looks like a backward step and now Tom is in trouble you start to feel the worst. Can the family survive? Tomorrow and the last 60 pages will tell…
before you read on let me just warn you that unless you are reading this particular part of the book then of course the daily bullet points will spoil it for you so please don’t read on further if that is the case. Otherwise…
As the family get closer to California they start to encounter some of those people who have been and are going back and come across the term “Okie” as derogatoryry label being applied to the immigrants coming into the state.
Bullet points between pages 154 – 240
* Granma starts to decline following her husband’s death and keeps talking as if he was still alive
* At an overnight camp site a man is there who has come back from California and he moans that people are treated badly and there is no work
* Further on the road the family encounter a father and son who have also returned and paint the same picture of discrimination, despair and injustice
* At the same camp site a Policeman asks them to be gone by the morning and warns Ma Joad that they “don’t want any Okies settling here”.
* They are dropping like flies and Noah decides to go off and leave the family
* Mrs Wilson, who has been ill since hooking up with the Joads, can’t go on and the Joads head off through the desert deeper into California without them
* Just as they cross the desert and get to see the lush green valley ahead of them Granma dies leaving them with the costs of a funeral. They really will be starting with nothing.
* They reach California and everything they have been warned about appears to be true so they decide to head up North to look for better prospects
You really want them to make it but at this rate there won’t be much of the Joad family left to make it much of a better life. Although they are too tired to see it the journey has already been a tragedy. More tomorrow…
The book goes from small chapters with different styles and different stories back to the main story of the family heading West in the great exodus to escape the dying land.
You really want the family to make it but you start to get hints that Route 66 is a place of despair for some of the travellers and that even when and if they get to California the hand bills proclaiming a land of milk and honey might not turn out to be true.
Bullet points between pages 76 – 154
* The family heads off with the preacher aboard and the family weighed down with possessions and fear
* The first casualty is the dog that runs into the Highway and gets killed
* The next is Grampa who has a stroke and is buried by the side of the road
* the Joads meet up and combine forces with the Wilson’s from Kansas and head off in convoy to lighten the load on the truck
* The car breaks down giving first Tom and Casy the chance to talk about how the mass migration mean there is something wrong with the country and then the brothers Tom and Al head off for a spare part and get a chance to talk about his prison time and his philosophy about the future
Will try to get back to 100 pages a day tomorrow if this heat cools down in London and the trains become more bearable. All you want now is for the family to make it but somehow you just sense that is not going to happen…
Most great works of literature start with an introduction that puts the work in context and provides some information about the author. These are always worth reading because, although they usually do contain spoilers that will take away the impact of some of the twists in the book, they do provide a lot of background that can help understand the book and the author’s motivation. Have to say in passing that the intro by Michael Millgate is one of the strangest I have read because it concludes by going through the book chapter by chapter. I skipped that bit because it really would have spoilt reading the rest of the story.
Bullet points between pages 1 – 76
* The scene is set with the tough depression era farming world of the Great Plains being destroyed by dust.
* Tenant farmers are being driven off their land by the banks and heading for the promised land of California where the living is meanrt to be easy
* Tom Joad is introduced as a character who has just been released from prison three years early for good behaviour after a homicide and is heading home
* He discovers his family have moved and meets the preacher from his youth -Casy – who as almost a metaphor for the community has lost his faith
* Tom meets up with his family as they prepare to depart for California
Like a great symphony, where the main theme echoes through the movements, already you are starting to get the idea for the themes of struggle Â– dust and the endless journey of the land turtle being two of them.
I wanted to read more but fell asleep on the train in the heat and as a result of a 4am start after taking my brother to the airport hope to crack on a bit more tomorrow…