Perhaps you are like I was. Perhaps your only encounter with John Steinbeck’s work has been Of Mice and Men, and you’ve thought, Wow. That was some top shelf storytelling, impressive writing, and enough shattered hope to knock the stuffing out of the most hard-hearted reader. How could he top that? Well, get ready because Big John comes out swinging in round two with The Grapes of Wrath.
It’s the middle of the great depression. Big banks and businesses are taking over, and room is running out for the little guy. Tom Joad is released from prison and makes his way back to his parents’ farm. Jim Casey, an ex-preacher, joins him and the two find the farm deserted. An old friend points Tom to his uncle’s place; there the family is making preparations to leave Oklahoma and head west, where word has it the country is good and the work plentiful. The entire Joad family, along with Casey, crams into an old jalopy and starts out for a new life. It turns out a few hundred thousand people have had the same idea. Despite some ominous warnings about the promised wonderland of California, the Joads continue their cross-country migration. One by one the weaker members of the family succumb to the physical and emotional strain, and by the time they reach California, a smaller nucleus of the family remains. The new life is not what they had hoped: work is scarce and pays next to nothing, and the Joads and their fellow “Okies” are treated as second-class citizens. The family is forced to travel to different camps and farms to survive. Casey has an epiphany and attempts to organise workers as a whole to demand better treatment. While some get on board with Casey’s vision, not everyone is so keen on higher wages for workers, and Casey cops a pick handle across the head for his efforts. Tom does some head smashing of his own, and then makes it his mission to spread the preacher’s good news. The rest of the Joad family, having lost everything but their lives, perseveres as far as they can into an uncertain future.
The despair dial on this book is cranked to eleven, but the story is riveting. Steinbeck uses a realistic and inventive writing style to transport readers into every scene and hook them. It makes for a heart-wrenching yet irresistible experience, along the lines of watching Schindler’s List or a bad audition on a T.V. talent show.
In addressing issues like poverty and greed, Steinbeck at times lays his political philosophies on thick, but it never overshadows the story. You need that kind of tact if you’re going to get opinionated, as I learned with my own book, Hotcakes in Cairo. Part nineteenth century Egyptian romance, part modern day political manifesto, it was a groundbreaking, if flawed, literary venture. I fear I may have pushed too hard with my personal views, devoting around half the story to a call for the Pacific Motorway to be widened to eight lanes from Robina to Tugan. I guess it was too controversial, as no publisher would touch it. They may also have baulked at the novel’s unorthodox length (nine pages). Oh well, live and learn.
Like my grandfather’s breath when he would come home from the bowls club, The Grapes of Wrath is powerful and lingering. 9/10
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