“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath have stored…”
Were you oblivious like me that these were the words in the first line of the Battle Hymn of the Republic? I’m not sure if these are the same grapes Steinbeck is referring to, but there is enough wrath in the world to go around, whether it’s the wrath of the Union army during the Civil War or the wrath of the promise of a better life out west.
Strangely and coincidentally, my mom mentioned she was reading a book about the Dust Bowl just as I was starting Grapes of Wrath. I didn’t really know what the Dust Bowl was before I read this book, but when my mom mentioned that her father came to California from Oklahoma in the 1930’s and even joked about being an, “Okie,” I was a lot more interested in knowing more. She was loving her book so much, she didn’t want to get to the end. I, on the other hand, was trudging through Grapes of Wrath one chapter at a time.
Steinbeck writes about the Joad family, who travel from Oklahoma to northern California, like so many families did in the 1930’s, when dust storms destroyed their crops and livelihoods. Promises of work in the fruit orchards lured families west, hoping to start new lives. We take this journey with Tom Joad, his siblings, parents, grandparents, and other stragglers they meet along the way. Their journey is rife with car troubles, death, more car troubles, more death, and camping. So much camping. If you’re averse to camping like me, the fact that the Joads rarely bathe and take a mattress from their car to the ground back to their car is only part of the horrors Steinbeck presents.
Steinbeck intersperses chapters about the Joad family with narrative chapters about the next topic to be broached. For instance, the first chapter is about the dust storms. He writes extensively about how dusty things are, how the dust formed, how the dust darkened the sky, how the dust muffled sound, how the dust settled on everything, how the dust covered the ground. Do you get the idea? You don’t, trust me. I remember thinking, “he just spent an entire chapter on dust storms, this is going to be a looooooong book.” Then the next chapter was about Tom Joad beginning his adventure. The another narrative chapter, this one about a turtle on the road. It took some getting used to. The narrative chapters were a more general approach to what the Joads were experiencing specifically. I appreciate Steinbeck’s ability to paint a picture using these narrative chapters, but it felt more like an academic exercise getting through them, rather than an enjoyable relaxing read. Hence my aforementioned “trudging” comment.
Overall, I enjoyed reading about the Joads – what ma was going to make for the next meal, where they would camp next, what their next (mis)adventure would be, when they’d get to bathe…And I definitely got a feel for a way of life and a time period I have no knowledge about. While I’ve read online many things about the book people find offensive, the only thing I picked up on were a few uses of offensive language referring to specific groups of people. While issues surrounding religion, communism, and unions still have the ability to turn people into crazy nitwits today, I think there was a lot less tolerance for what Steinbeck wrote about then than there is now.
While I don’t regret reading the book, would I recommend it? Nah. I think I’ll try the one my mom was raving about and see if it’s less of a chore to read.