Having enjoyed 2 other Steinbeck novels I was pleased that this one was on the reading list for the course I am on in the new year, about how American history is depicted in its literature. I already had a lovely 2nd edition hardback from 1940, that a friend had given to me, so it was great to be able to pick up this American classic as my next read.
This famous depiction of the great Depression during the 1930's follows the Joad family, generations of which have worked the land near Oklahoma as tenant farmers, and who now find themselves (along with all of the other farmers from the neighbouring states) losing their home to corporate land owners, who turf them out with no work or home. Like everyone else for miles, they all head west on route 66 to California where more corporate companies have advertised work on the fruit and cotton farms. Sadly there are many many more workers than jobs, a deliberate calculation to keep wages down by the companies, so instead of a bountiful place where you can eat all the fruit you want and make a good living, there are shanty towns of desperate hungry people, oppressed and abused by the police, hated and mistrusted by the locals. There is little work and little hope.
We follow the Joad's, decent and hard working, from their farm, piling their resourses, leaving a life that had worked over generations, on their journey west, losing family members, making friends, surviving with others on the same journey. Their incredible migration fills the first half of the story. The second half is their attempts to do everything they can to find work and survive in California, through the dreadful Hoovervilles, the better government camps where a sense of civility returns, and being forced to leave to work on a peach plantation surrounded by strike pickets protesting about pay cuts, forcing them to live in near prison conditions. They finally settle picking cotton and living in a box car, but the family have fragmented, the work is drying up and their future is uncertain. The last chapters depict their desperate situation with maximum drama.
Steinbeck depicts his characters in such a way that you feel as if you know them, you care about them, spend time with them, understand them. I always feel as if Steinbeck loves his people and it makes you love them. This made this story really hard because you know that things will not go well for them and you worry. The family however seem to hold on to hope despite the worst conditions. Their dignity and resoursefulness is inspirational and heart warming. I rooted for all of them.
Steinbeck intersperses his chapters about the Joad's with short commentaries about the wider picture, some of which incited disgust and fury in me while reading them, while recognising the relevance of those affected by similar organisational giants and their railroad tactics today. I particularly found the chapters about the faceless tractors mowing down their land and houses very moving, and the one about the abundance of fruit while people starved, the rotting mountains of peaches, the vegetables tipped into the river causing people to literally fish for potatoes to feed themselves and their families. In fact I found the entire story very moving on lots of levels.
I loved Ma Joad, the character that is depicted the most, the matrarch who increasingly finds herself making the decisions for the family. I loved it when she stood up to the jobsworth shopkeeper telling him that when you are struggling, it is only other poor people who will help you out, others with nothing.
I really enjoyed this book because I connected wholly with the characters and worried for them all the way through. The disturbing last chapters and last scene in particular will stay with me. I am not sure I could emotionally survive the film version with Henry Fonda. This is not the most harrowing story I have read (that award goes to Germinal by Emile Zola), but it is certainly a very memorable roller coaster, and an important book that I highly recommend.
For a readers group guide to The Grapes of Wrath click the link.