Well, well, well: wasn’t this a pleasant surprise? When I picked up this copy of The Grapes Of Wrath (another secondhand bargain, once belonging to a “William Lang” who was kind enough to keep it in pretty good nick for me), I didn’t have high hopes. I’d just read two white-men-talking-to-each-other-about-power stories back-to-back (reviews here and here), and I figured I’d be in for more of the same. But, once again, this project up-ends my expectations: I loved Steinbeck’s story, more than I could have imagined! I think it’s another happy coincidence, coming to a book at the right time; this story of a migrant family pulling themselves up out of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression seems eerily relevant and poignant in a post-Trump and post-Brexit world.
Steinbeck was no slouch in the writing game. The Grapes Of Wrath took home a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was cited prominently when he won the Nobel Prize in 1962. The story begins with Tom Joad, a recent parolee, returning home to Oklahoma. On his way, he runs into Jim Casy, a former preacher, and they decide to travel together. When they make it to Tom’s family home, they find the farm deserted, and an old neighbour tells them that the Joad clan has gone to stay at another farm nearby, the banks having evicted almost everyone in the area.
In fact, the Joads – who are pretty much penniless, the Dust Bowl having destroyed their crops – are loading up a truck they intend to drive to California. They’ve heard there’s work aplenty there, and the pay is decent, so it seems as good an idea as any (and, well, they ain’t got a lot of options). Even though leaving Oklahoma will violate his parole, Tom jumps in with them, and convinces Jim to come along for the ride.
I was particularly impressed with the way Steinbeck used dialect. It felt very readable, fluid, natural – and even though he was effectively writing about “hicks” and “rednecks”, to use the pejorative terms, he didn’t once condescend to Southerners or make a spectacle of them.
The Joads quickly learn that they aren’t the only family who had the idea to look for work in the Golden State. They encounter many migrant groups living in makeshift camps along their route, all with horrible stories about the true nature of the life and work on Californian farms. One-by-one, the Joads start to exit the story: Grandpa dies, then Grandma (with poor old Ma Joad riding with her corpse in the back of the truck for hours before alerting the others, to ensure they made it to California without delay), eldest son Noah leaves them, and then Connie bolts too (he’s the husband of the pregnant Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon – and yes, that’s her real given name, but she’s most often referred to as “Rosasharn”). Oh, and the dog dies. The Grapes Of Wrath is a pretty traumatic read, on the whole.
You might be thinking that Tom Joad is the hero of this story, but you’d be wrong. Ma Joad is the star of the show. She’s now one of my favourite characters in all of American literature. It’s under her leadership that the Joad family continues to seek work and make the best of their shitty circumstances. Pa Joad, the “head of the house”, is completely demoralised and basically useless, so Ma Joad takes the reins and does a damn fine job. They would have been completely screwed without her (well, they were still pretty screwed, but less so for Ma Joad being an incredible kick-arse matriarch).
Anyway, when they make it to California, they find a very saturated labour market, meaning most families are forced to work for a pittance and exploited to the point of literal starvation. Steinbeck really went all-out, he shat on capitalism from a great height. Jim Casy takes it upon himself to unionise the workers, co-ordinating a strike, but it all ends in tears when a police confrontation turns violent (Steinbeck also hated cops, it would seem). Tom witnesses Casy’s fatal beating, and takes his vengeance, killing the cop. He winds up back on the run, a murderous fugitive once again.
Ma Joad doesn’t let a little thing like her son’s homicidal tendencies slow them down. She makes Tom promise that he will use his lucky break, having escaped arrest, to fight for workers’ rights and end the oppression that is quite literally killing the working class. The Joads continue on, finding more work at a cotton farm, but this is a things-go-from-bad-to-worse story, so strap in. George R.R. Martin ain’t got nothin’ on Steinbeck, honestly – Georgie has a high body count, sure, but Steinbeck tortures and starves his characters in the most twisted of ways.
Rose Of Sharon’s bun in the oven dings, and she labours for hours on the floor of the shack they’re calling home. Her baby, sadly, is stillborn. I had literal tears welling in my eyes; I’m normally a tough nut to crack, but these scenes were absolutely devastating. Ma Joad holds it together (because of course she does) and lucky she does, because an almighty storm blows up and floodwaters inundate the area. The family has to bail on the shack, and seek shelter in a barn up the road. There, they find a young boy and his father, also not in a good way. The young boy is dying, he hasn’t eaten in forever, and Rose of Sharon – at Ma Joad’s prompting – offers him her breastmilk, saving his life. It is truly one of the most haunting passages I have ever read. And also, it’s The End.
I felt like I’d been punched! The Grapes Of Wrath, with that fucking ending, was so damn good that I started getting angry. Why had no one in my life who had read it warned me what was coming?! Gah!
The only thing that soured my experience of reading this Great American Novel was finding out later that Steinbeck ripped off a woman (naturally). It would seem that he “borrowed” heavily from the notes of Farm Security Administration worker Sanora Babb, who was researching migrant families with a view to writing her own book in 1938. Her boss showed her work to Steinbeck, and the rest is why-do-women-keep-getting-screwed-over-and-over history. The publication and popularity of The Grapes Of Wrath scuppered any hopes that Babb had of getting her own work out there. Her novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, wasn’t published until 2004, and she died the following year.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Steinbeck also has his wife to thank for the book’s iconic title. He was struggling to come up with anything himself, then she suggested The Grapes Of Wrath, having read the phrase near the end of Chapter 25 where Steinbeck described the purposeful destruction of food to keep demand (and profits) high:
“… and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”Chapter 25
And she nailed it: that line really captures what The Grapes Of Wrath is all about. It’s a story of the potential for a working class revolt, how the seeds of a revolution are sown. Steinbeck said that, in writing the novel, he wanted “to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this” (“this” being the Great Depression and its domino effect). That’s why the book has been so powerful and popular with supporters of the workers’ movement.
Its publication “was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event”, later reports claimed. The Grapes Of Wrath was the best-selling book of 1939, and it was debated and discussed at length in all manner of public and private forums. Many of Steinbeck’s contemporaries attacked his social and political views as expressed through his story of the Joads, but he did not give one single fuck. All the controversy just led to more book sales.
The Grapes Of Wrath feels timeless, because the more things change, the more they stay the same. We can all find something familiar in a story about automation, and climate change, and the feelings of powerlessness and fear they inspire. Save for a few technological advancements, I would completely believe that this was a contemporary novel set in the present day. If you’re in the mood to say Fuck The Man! but also want to read a heart-wrenching and beautiful family story, you need to pick up a copy of The Grapes Of Wrath and get stuck in.
Note: The Grapes Of Wrath was SO GOOD that it made the cut for my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading.
My favourite Amazon reviews of The Grapes Of Wrath:
- “My package arrived empty. I would like a refund, but have nothing to return.” – Amie Majerus
- “I had to read this book in high school. I hope English teachers aren’t still forcing teenagers to read this book, but they probably are. I still think about the ending sometimes and wonder if there was something wrong with John Steinbeck.” – Janette
- “Bought this book thinking I would learn how to make a nice bitter wine for a get together for me and my gal pals… But it’s just a book about people traveling in the depression. I was expecting some grapes being angry. Also there are no grapes in this book whatsoever!!” – Amazon Customer
- “I have been reading books that won Pulitzer prizes. I’m very happy with most of them. This one is terrible. The author, John Steinbeck, commented “I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” Thanks for nothing. I don’t want my nerves ripped to rags. And that’s why I give this book the lowest possible score.
The point of the story is that rich bastards are bastards. Got it. Agreed. Bastards are bastards. Got it. I don’t want to go on this journey. It’s like the old Mr. Bill skits on Saturday Nite Live. Do you remember Mr. Bill? Everything horrible happens to Mr. Bill. That’s what this book is. Mr. Bill.
I will happily join your revolution but I will not read your book to the end. It’s too messed up. I don’t want my nerves ripped to rags.” – LF
- “One of the boringest published novels I’ve ever laid eyes on.” – C. Cross
- “So, I’m only on page 478 of 619, but I’ve been disgusted at the amount of profanity. So far I’ve found more than 500 uses of profanity! On average every page (with relatively big writing, even) has more than one swear. Yikes!
I’m never going to read Grapes of Wrath again, and won’t be recommending it to anyone. If you don’t like profanity, be careful.” – Jef4Jesus
- “This book was 600 pages written purly about a bunch of hicks from Oklahoma starving. Thanks, but no thanks,” – M. Landis
P.S. Never forget this pearler of a tweet from publisher Antonio French during the Trump campaign:
Trump’s foreign policy answers sound like a book report from a teenager who hasn’t read the book. “Oh, the grapes! They had so much wrath!”— Antonio French (@AntonioFrench) October 20, 2016