Book # 593
I have had the pleasure of reading and reviewing all of John Steinbeck’s entries on the 1001 list. I started with Of Mice and Men back in 2012 and followed up with Cannery Row last year. I had put off The Grapes of Wrath because in my head I had an image of a long, dour story of hardship that I would not enjoy, despite loving Steinbeck’s writing style.
I was both right and wrong. It is a long story; it is a story of hardship and yes, I still love the way Steinbeck writes.
The novel was published in 1939 and is set during the Great Depression. It follows both the story of the Joad family, sharecroppers from Oklahoma who are forced off their 40 acres and join the mass migration to California looking for work and a new life, and the mass of migrant labour that was caused due to the Dust Bowl phenomenon of the 1930s. Steinbeck intertwines both the personal narrative and the larger, more generalised story of the masses through alternating chapters.
We start by meeting the Joad family. Tom, the second son, is released from McAlester prison after serving a sentence for homicide. He meets an itinerant preacher on his way home and they travel together to the family farm. When they reach the farm they find it deserted. It is at this point Steinbeck begins his social themes around the hardships of the sharecroppers.
The houses were left vacant on the land, and the land was vacant because of this. Only the tractor sheds of corrugated iron, silver and gleaming, were alive; and they were alive with metal and gasoline and oil, the disks of the lows shining. The tractors had lights shining, for there is no day and night for a tractor and the disks turn the earth in the darkness and they glitter in the daylight. And when a horse stops work and goes into the barn there is life and a vitality left, there is a breathing and a warmth, and the feet shift on the straw, and the jaws champ on the hay, and the ears and the eyes are alive. There is a warmth of life in the barn, and the heat and smell of life. But when the motor of a tractor stops, it is as dead as the ore it came from. The heat goes out of it like the living heat that leaves a corpse.
There is considerable time spent on this theme of people having a connection to their land and that the mass farms and mechanisation by tractor is cold and disconnected from the land and therefore so are the ‘tractor men’. It reappears throughout the story in the searching, wishing and dreaming of having a bit of land that each of the Joads expresses.
Once Tom and the preacher, Casy, find out that the family are planning to leave for California with his uncle John, they make their way to his land and join with them in preparation. Even though it means breaking parole, Tom goes with them as he and his younger brother, Al, are the only ones able to drive the cheap, broken-down vehicle they’ve had to buy in order to leave. Once on the road Steinbeck breaks in to another theme, that of being refugees on Highway 66.
66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.
Steinbeck writes some terrible, moving passages in this section of the novel. The pathos is palpable.
Listen to that gasket whistle.
Chee-rist! There she went. Blowed tube an’ casing all to hell. Have to fix her. Save that casing to make boots; cut ’em out an’ stick ’em inside a weak place.
Cars pulled up beside the road, engine heads off, tires mended. Cars limping along 66 like wounded things, panting and struggling. Too hot, loose connections, loose bearings, rattling bodies.
Danny wants a cup of water.
People in flight along 66. And the concrete road shone like a mirror under the sun, and in the distance the heat made it seem that there were pools of water in the road.
Danny wants a cup a water.
He’ll have to wait, poor little fella. He’s hot. Nex’ service station. Service station, like the fella says.
Two hundred and fifty thousand people over the road. Fifty thousand old cars – wounded, steaming. Wrecks along the road, abandoned. Well, what happened to them? What happened to the folks in that car? Did they walk? Where are they? Where does the courage come from? Where does the terrible faith come from?
It is a brutal story but it is, for the most part, told in a way that makes it readable and relatable. You feel a whole range of emotions for this family as they meet hardships at every turn. Ma Joad is one of the strongest characters I’ve come across in my reading. She has terrible faith and determination despite all that happens to her family.
I have barely touched on the ideas raised by Steinbeck, others being around ownership and waste, unionism and enslavement. This is a fabulous book, with wonderful writing, but at around page 300 it began to lose me. Only with a bit of determination did I keep it up and finish off the last 230-odd pages. This last part I read with constant trepidation of what was going to happen. I’m glad I kept at it, and with the exception of finding it a touch too drawn out, would recommend this highly.
As a piece of historical, social fiction and part-treatise, it is a must to read. We like to think we are civilised enough that such displacement couldn’t happen again, but I think there are timeless lessons to be learned in the Joad’s story and we’d be well advised to think on it.