Grapes of Wrath

I was reading the Grapes of Wrath the other day and someone made a snarky comment about me finally getting around to reading it. It's true I never studied it in school but it's also true that now is the perfect time to read this heartbreaking story about sharecroppers forced off their land after devastating dust storms destroy their crops. John Steinbeck's descriptions of the foreclosing banks as cogs of a mindless, merciless machine is particularly apt as once again foreclosure rates rise and rise and rise.

The book starts off slowly, with a description of a dust storm that destroys the young corn plants, but the story soon picks up and I eventually got to the point where I stayed up all night finishing it. It's written in an unusual style, with every other chapter alternating between two different types of storytelling. Some of the book is told about the migrants as a whole, encompassing the changes to the land, the reactions of other people as the displaced pass through on their way to the promised land, and descriptions of the terrible conditions the entire country is in. The other half tells the story of one migrant family and everything that befalls them. Their story mirrors the disintegration of the economy and the agrarian based society, starting with most of the family scratching out a subsistence living as sharecroppers and finishing with the remnants of the family struggling against natural disaster in California.

The crops fail and the banks drive everyone off the land just as Tom Joad gets out of prison on parole. Tom has just finished serving four years for killing a man with a shovel; a man who came after him with a knife. Tom got through his prison time by not thinking about what was ahead. He put one foot in front of the other and got through a minute at a time. His ability to look away from the big picture and get through bit by bit will come in handy as he and his family head off to California with the bare essentials.

Fourteen members of the family, including the dogs, are meant to start the journey, traveling in an overloaded car turned into a truck. (The preceding chapter about used car salesman made me wonder if the terrible reputation that clings to used car salesmen today dates from the publication of The Grapes of Wrath.) Just as they are leaving, one of the dogs refuses to get into the truck, and then the grandfather decides he's not leaving the property either. Eventually he comes along, after being drugged into a stupor, but has a stroke and passes away very quickly, leaving the family with three untenable choices. They can pay most of their small sum of money for a funeral, they can turn his corpse over to the county for a burial in Potter's Field or they can bury him themselves, breaking the law. These losses and difficult choice are foreshadowing of other losses and difficult choices the family will face on their journey.

Grapes of Wrath took me a long time to finish. This was partly because it's pretty grim, doubly so given how it reflects some of what we’re going through as a country today. Replace agriculture with manufacturing or some service industries and the similarities are even stronger. Just as farmers lost their jobs and land in the thirties, so too have workers lost their jobs as factories and call centers are sent overseas or south of the border.

But it also took me a long time because it made me think so much, sometimes about kind of ridiculous things. Like in chapter five, which I strongly recommend to everyone as it's about responsibility, the responsibility of the landowners to their tenants, or possibly about how nobody wants to claim responsibility. But it's also about the changes in agriculture as the system becomes mechanized. Not just the farm equipment is mechanical; the landlords/banking system is also mechanical. I was struck by this quote "He sat in an iron seat and stepped on iron pedals. He could not cheer or beat or curse or encourage the extension of his power, and because of this he could not cheer or whip or curse or encourage himself. He did not know or own or trust or beseech the land. If a seed dropped did not germinate, it was no skin off his ass." I wondered if this was where the expression "no skin off my ass" (or nose) came from. In this case of course the ass is the donkey or mule that is pulling the plow.

Many of the attitudes in the book also mirror attitudes we encounter today, seventy years later. The "Okies" are reviled by the inhabitants of other states and interstate border guards are set up at various spots along the way. In one state the Okies are told to keep moving or else. There are striking similarities to the attitudes that migrant workers who come from Mexico or other countries sometimes face. It was a bit shocking to see that same mind-set in the book, but coming from one American to another. Steinbeck delves into the reasons behind the prejudice, discussing the history of California; in particular the way land has been grabbed and passed from hand to hand, and the concerns of the landowners who fear they will lose the land to which they cling.

Steinbeck also illustrates how fear of communism was used to crush anyone who dared to ask for a living wage. With so many mouths to feed entire families would work all day and not earn enough money for decent food, much less shelter, clothing or any of the other most basic needs. As I said The Grapes of Wrath is a grim book but it's also an important book; just as important now as it was when it was written or won the Pulitzer Prize. If you're someone who doesn't usually read classics or award winning fiction, fearing it will be dreary or tedious, you should still give this a try. You might be surprised by how relevant it is or by how much it strums your heartstrings.

One-Paragraph Review
This week's one-paragraph review is from Chief Resident who says, "The final ER wasn't bad. Maybe too much telling us alcohol bad/charity good but all in all not bad." Do you have a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me for consideration. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.