I think it’s in On Writing by Stephen King, where he says sometimes you read a book and think “I can do that.” And then there are the books and the authors that make you say, “I could never do that.” For me, John Steinbeck is one of the latter. There is something about the way he puts words together, that I know are in the same language I speak, but somehow form simple, spare sentences conveying more meaning than the individual words would suggest possible.
In Dubious Battle is a relatively short novel, spanning just a few days. Jim Nolan is a new Party recruit who joins Mac McLeod on a trip to Torgas Valley, CA, where they’ve heard the local Grower’s Association intends to cut wages for the fruit-tramps. It seems a prime opportunity to spark a strike and for Jim to get his feet wet in labor organization. Mac does his best to take advantage of all the opportunities in their path, constantly recalibrating as the striking men take matters into their own hands.
In Dubious Battle was published in 1936 and so some references are dated, particularly the near total lack of women and the complete lack of people of color. The themes are surprisingly still relevant however- the frustration felt by workers who feel they have no power and the promises that things could be different if only…
It’s difficult to say I enjoyed this book. It was frustrating because 83 years ago, we were fighting the same battles. Obviously, things have changed but barring some references to communists and changed technology, much of this novel could be exactly the same, except the fruit tramps would be migrant workers. But being Steinbeck, it is beautifully written and has the simple power with which Steinbeck infused his writing. It does what great writing does, which is see someone else’s story and make you examine your current circumstances with another lens.