Sometimes I find that I need to slow things down. After reading four or five books a month, it becomes necessary to pick one book and settle down – to nestle in and enjoy every painstakingly created word. This month, I finally did it.
I found great pleasure in discovering John Steinbeck five years after going to college. I read Of Mice and Men while in high school, and breezed through The Pearl in college, but never gave him a second thought until reading East of Eden last year.
I was hooked.
Instead of doing the compulsive book-reader thing and devouring every Steinbeck book at once, I’ve decided to stretch them out. Steinbeck’s not writing any more books, and I’d hate to not have one to look forward to, even if it’s a shorter novella or play.
With that in mind, I felt it was time to dive into his Pulitzer Prize winning novel – The Grapes of Wrath – and experience the horrible, yet satisfyingly moralistic life of the Joad family.
Think about it: what happens when you lose everything? When your livelihood dries up and your home is taken away. When you’re forced onto the road after selling nearly everything. What happens when you drive off in search of a better place and it proves not to be the Babylon you’d dreamed of but a living hell?
To most of us, the Great Depression and Dust Bowl eras are historic concepts, no longer conceivable in today’s world, destined to live in the past and remembered only by those who lived through it. However, nearly 70 years after it was published, The Grapes of Wrath continues to outline the life and death struggle to survive without food, money, or prospect.
The Joads are a typical Dust Bowl group: a farm family whose land dried up, cashed out, and was taken away. They’re forced to begin a journey to California, admittedly with the greatest of intents. Jobs are rumored to be plentiful, and even the eldest members are excited to bask in endless fields of grapes and peaches. With very little money and an unreliable truck, the family heads west on Route 66 in search of their new life.
What they find is anything but plentiful. An entire population of displaced farm families – “Okies,” as they were slanderously called – had arrived in California to find very few jobs. Because of this, wages were lowered; child labor encouraged, and even those who had constant work were hard pressed to keep their families fed. Children starved, men and women collapsed, exhausted, and what little belongings that still existed were moved weekly, sometimes daily.
Steinbeck constructs an unassuming, yet vicious landscape throughout the book. The imagery is stark. Hope is fleeting as the Joad family slowly makes its way down Route 66. They felt the cold calculation of the banks that took away their home. Then they experienced the restless journey towards something they couldn’t quite grasp. Eventually, they discovered that they could be powerful – if they organized, they could beat this rap. If a man’s children are crying for food, starving and dying, you’d be surprised the amount of fight it can bring up.
The Grapes of Wrath isn’t a dusty, boring tome. It’s not a chore. It’s amazingly gripping and startlingly vivid. At times it’s hopeful. Other times, terrifyingly melancholy. If you see a little of yourself in the Joad family, you’re liable to understand their plight, to feel their pain – to quietly champion their cause until, by the end, you’re fighting for a rally and hoping things turn out.
Steinbeck champions the “down on his luck” traveler better than anyone. He brings the fight not just to the family, but to everyone around them. Brief chapter-long interludes paint a frame around the Joad family’s odyssey, bringing perspective to their suffering. Steinbeck argues that bad luck shouldn’t cause an entire region to end up poor, homeless, and without prospect. And it shouldn’t cause hardship for the small farmers that have to try to survive in a world of declining costs and dwindling returns.
There are stark parallels between the westward migration of Midwesterners during the Depression and a more recent disaster – Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Look at what happened last summer – at the destruction that Mother Nature brought down upon the people of New Orleans – and consider what happened to residents who were too poor to pick themselves back up. Think about the people who were forced to move on from their homes in order to fight for the same job as their displaced neighbors.
Ultimately, we can all learn a lot from Steinbeck’s prose. In The Grapes of Wrath, we learn not to take anything for granted. We learn that beauty can be found in the simple – in a loaf of bread, or in a porcelain bathtub.
Most of all, we learn that many times it’s the people with nothing that are willing to give the most. We learn that everyone is a member of the same human race – that everyone has a hand in everyone else’s life – and that if you can’t help a fellow destitute, then what good are you to yourself?
Frankly, that’s a lesson we all could learn a thing or two about.