I really thought I wouldn’t like this book. I was very hesitant to begin it, thinking it would just bog me down like so many others I’ve read this year. As it turns out, this is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I love the contrast Steinbeck makes between chapters: one chapter of plot, one chapter of very impressionist, camera-like motion. The characters were incredibly life-like, and it was more like a character study than a setting-based book (which is what most people have complained about to me, all the setting and description). Reading the characters was almost like reading an extreme form of family history. My great-grandma was from Oklahoma and lived through the great depression. She didn’t travel out to California, but stayed in OK. She was in a unique, if not particularly pleasant, position, as her mother was Cherokee and her father was Anglo. A lot of prejudice on both Anglo and Cherokee sides was put against her family. But getting back to the point, reading The Grapes of Wrath was like getting a little glimpse of the life my family comes from. The attitudes towards charity, the attitudes towards land, the attitudes about men and women and gender roles, the attitudes towards government, all that – I recognize the parts that have been passed down my family for years, becoming more diluted with each new generation. I recognize my grandpa in the descriptions of men, I recognize my grandma in the women, I recognize my mom’s views on charity and the role of government, etc. It’s really incredible.
Steinbeck isn’t pretending at all here – this is social commentary at its rawest. At the same time, he isn’t completely heavy-handed. His characters do have spots of good luck. In a situation that goes from bad to worse, continually, progressively, throughout the novel, it’s not so melancholy as to be unrealistic. Yes, terrible things happen, and the bad by far outweighs the good, but if the Joads just hit one misfortune after another with no break, the commentary would lose its value and meaning. Steinbeck puts in just the right amount of counterbalance so that the reader doesn’t get completely bogged down. You want the Joads to triumph even though you know they won’t. You get a third of the way into the book and already know each misfortune that’s going to happen and don’t want to read anymore but still have to go on. It’s masterfully done.
I think of immigrants today, the terrible things that they go through and the way we treat them in the US. They are poor. They have no choices in a lot of ways. We bring them here, pay them little, treat them like they’re stupid, dirty, uncivilized beasts, and send them back where they came from when we’ve used them well enough. What an awful thing! And I know that they aren’t US citizens, but if you look back then, states were much more segregated, and the Californians didn’t want the “okies” to invade any more than people don’t want the Mexicans to come in. We don’t want to give them a chance at citizenship. We build a wall to stop them. But if we can get them in enough to work for cheap, it’s okay. Just send them back afterwards. Sigh. Our society is doing just the same thing as then, and I think it would benefit people to go back and read this sort of work, to get some sense of our humanity back. One of the things Ma Joad says:
I’m learnin’ one thing good… 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.
What a powerful statement. So many powerful messages in this book. A very worthwhile and fulfilling read, and I can’t wait to present it to my book club in April.