I’ve been feeling a little down about my reading during the shutdown and decided I needed to knock off one of the big classics sitting on my to-be-read list. Luckily, The Grapes of Wrath was close at hand. Unlike many, I was never assigned Steinbeck’s ode to the Okie in high school English, and for that I am thankful. (We read Of Mice and Men instead.) My teenage self would not have had the patience to put up with Steinbeck’s digressions and the length at which he belabors his points. Even as an adult I found some sections trying to get through. However, what shines through is Steinbeck’s compassion, not just for the Joad family at the center of the novel, but for all working people everywhere.
As you probably know, The Grapes of Wrath focuses on the travails of the Joad family as they depart their Oklahoma farm in the heights of the Depression and migrate to California to look for one. They are certainly not alone in that endeavor, and in short chapters disbursed throughout the narrative Steinbeck abandons the Joads to provide a panoramic narrative about this migration and its challenges and deprivations. As for the Joads themselves they are a strange lot. Eldest son Tom Joad has just been paroled from prison after killing a man in self-defense at a bar fight. He returns to find his family farm deserted, his parents and siblings decamped for his Uncle John’s in preparation of the long trek west. He decides to break the conditions of his parole and head to California with his kin.
The trip is a slow-moving disaster. Nearly instantly some of the older family members feel the strain and wind up on death’s door, while some of Tom’s siblings express ambivalence about continuing the journey. And when they get to California their troubles are only starting.
Steinbeck uses the Joads to make an argument for the necessity of labor organizing, as each job the Joads find winds up exploiting them and the other poor laborers desperate for work. In repetitive fashion he has some of the more experienced migrant workers explain the way the system works to the Joads, about how the glut of labor means there is always someone willing to do the job for less. How the only hope for the workers is to stand together despite how difficult it is to do when children are starving. How the wealthy and powerful use their influence to keep the workers from banding together, and keep the middle class compliant with scare-talk about “reds.”
The Grapes of Wrath is a book to be appreciated more than enjoyed. Steinbeck’s complete sincerity, and his commanding control of the widespread narrative, are deeply impressive. Yet the dreariness of the subject matter and the repetition of the book’s central economic lesson make it a hard book to love.