I’m mad that I never had The Grapes of Wrath as a reading assignment at school, and surprised that no one suggested I read it outside of the classroom. This is the first book I’ve ever read where I cried while reading, not only because of the storyline, but because the writing was so beautiful.
Up until now, my only familiarity with John Steinbeck was that he was the man behind East of Eden, my favorite James Dean movie. I knew he was a talented writer, and I knew he had won the Nobel Prize. Aside from that, he was a mystery to me. But the moment I read ex-preacher Casy’s take on sin just a few pages into the book, I knew I’d met my literary soul mate.
There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say.
One of the things I was most surprised to see what the way Steinbeck structured The Grapes of Wrath. One of the biggest challenges with writing about politics, let alone speaking about politics, is bringing the discussion down from a lofty, abstract and relating to our personal, tangible realities. As Steinbeck chronicles the story of the Joad family, he alternates each chapter with a panoramic description of all migrant families and the individual description of the Joad family’s journey.
And some day – the armies of bitterness will all be going the same way. And they’ll all walk together, and there’ll be dead terror from it.
Each page is dripping with careful symbolism. Throughout their migration across the country, Steinbeck always notes when the Joad’s truck passes over an animal along the highway, especially snakes. The displaced families had their homes run over literally by the banks and their tractors, but they sure would like to run over those snakes who stole their property from them.
“Well, we all got to make a livin’.”
“Yeah,” Tom said. “On’y I wisht they was some way to make her ‘thout takin’ her away from somebody else.”
At one point, there is a torrential rain flooding the area where the Joad’s have taken up living. As they build a barrier between the ever-expanding river and their boxcar home, a tree comes unhinged and floats down the stream. The men watch, the tree uprooted from the only land it has known and floats down the river, unsure of where it will land and whether it will survive. Just like them.
The beam of the flashlight showed a great cottonwood toppling. The men stopped to watch. The branches of the tree sank into the water and edged around with the current while the stream dug out the little roots. Slowly the tree was freed, and slowly it edged down the stream.
Beyond the contemporary commentary The Grapes of Wrath offered, its message still rings true. Steinbeck very clearly shows describes a life of poverty during The Great Depression. It’s a critique of capitalism, and how low-income communities are consistently targeted by law enforcement to break up the possibility of organizing into something stronger. A storyline that still sounds familiar, nearly 100 years later.
And the children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange.
Image of The Grapes of Wrath trailer from Wikimedia.