Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath, first published in 1939, is said to be John Steinbeck's greatest masterpiece. At the time, this book caused so much controversy that it was banned and even burned in some places due to its telling nature of what life was like for the poor migrant workers in California. The rich farmers were portrayed as greedy and ruthless and the government was portrayed as protective only of the interests of the wealthy and not of those of the poor. People thought this book to be inaccurate and overdramatized, but it was mostly the members of the Farmers Association of California who felt that way, go figure.

The main characters of the story are the Joads, a fictional family from Oklahoma forced to leave behind all they know because of the dust bowl of the 1930's. Like countless other families of that era, they go seek out the advertised opportunities of the promised land of California and journey across the country, but instead of finding work and a better life they only find "Okie" hatred, prejudice, and injustice.

"They were hungry, and they were fierce. And they had hoped to find a home, and they found only hatred. Okies—the owners hated them because the owners knew they were soft and the Okies strong, that they were fed and the Okies hungry; and perhaps the owners had heard from their grandfathers how easy it is to steal land from a soft man if you are fierce and hungry and armed. The owners hated them. And in the towns the storekeepers hated them because they had no money to spend. There is no shorter path to a storekeeper's contempt, and all his admirations are exactly opposite. The town men, little bankers, hated Okies because there was nothing to gain from them. They had nothing. And the laboring people hated Okies because a hungry man must work, and if he must work, if he has to work, the wage payer automatically gives him less for his work; and then no one can get more." Steinbeck, John. (1939). “The Grapes of Wrath.” Penguin Books; page 233.

I started reading this book a few years ago and had the hardest time getting into it. I wanted to give up on it more than just a few times, but as a Californian and more specifically, a Steinbeck country native, I feel it is my duty to read all Steinbeck literature. If not I would be like an Englishman never reading Shakespeare or a Spaniard never reading Cervantes and that simply cannot be. So instead of giving up on the book completely, I'd read as much as I could handle then put the book down.....for a month or two.

Eventually I would get to like the book and then love the book. When I got almost half way through it I started feeling like I was really getting to know the Joads (it's hard to keep the characters straight because there's so many) and I felt for them as they struggled every day to stay afloat; I admired their optimism about all the wonderful opportunities that were awaiting them in California (or so they thought); and I was terrified for them as they were nearing California because I had the sneaking suspicion that they were going to have to endure a lot of hardship in this dream land where they did not know they were not wanted; and lastly their courage to keep going after all the bad things that happen to them was very inspiring.

I'm not gonna lie to you, this book is a little depressing, it does, after all, take place during this nation's great depression, but you become invested in the characters and you start rooting for them and hoping they achieve their dreams, which are the most basic of dreams, like finding their livelihood, a home to call their own, and their daily bread. My heart ached for the Joads as they suffered through the trials and tribulations of that time which included, but were not limited to poverty and displacement, illness, hunger, and even death. Worse yet, they had to do it all in an unknown land far where they were despised, from home.

Though it took me a while, I fell in love with the Joads and their story because despite all the horrible things that happen to them, they try to keep the family together as much as possible and not only that, they remain kind to one another and to perfect strangers. I was especially moved by the constant generosity the Joads and the other families in their situation gave one another despite having close to nothing.

"Learnin' it all a time, ever' day. If you're in trouble or hurt or need--go to poor people. They're the only ones that'll help--the only ones." Steinbeck, John. (1939). “The Grapes of Wrath.” Penguin Books; page 376.

I know this book is required reading at some high schools and colleges, but it wasn't for any of the schools I went to and I’m glad. I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much back then as I do now. I highly recommend this book. It is reminiscent of some of the issues going on today in our country and around the world (like immigration issues and social and economic inequalities among others). As a forewarning, I want to add that this book may stir up many different emotions, but if not, at the very least it will be a good history lesson and that in and of itself makes reading it worthwhile.

Until next time!