Book 6 for my Back to the Classics Challenge: The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. Officially the most depressing book I’ve ever read. It took me 3 months to drag my way through it because I couldn’t read more than a handful of pages at a time.
At the time of publication, Steinbeck’s novel “was a phenomenon on the scale of a national event. It was publicly banned and burned by citizens, it was debated on national talk radio; but above all, it was read.” According to The New York Times, it was the best-selling book of 1939 and 430,000 copies had been printed by February 1940. In that month it won the National Book Award, favorite fiction book of 1939, voted by members of the American Booksellers Association. Soon it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.The book was noted for Steinbeck’s passionate depiction of the plight of the poor, and many of his contemporaries attacked his social and political views. Bryan Cordyack writes, “Steinbeck was attacked as a propagandist and a socialist from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. The most fervent of these attacks came from the Associated Farmers of California; they were displeased with the book’s depiction of California farmers’ attitudes and conduct toward the migrants. They denounced the book as a ‘pack of lies’ and labeled it ‘communist propaganda’”. Some accused Steinbeck of exaggerating camp conditions to make a political point. Steinbeck had visited the camps well before publication of the novel and argued their inhumane nature destroyed the settlers’ spirit.
The book begins hopeless as Tommy Joad returns home from prison to find the family home pushed off its foundation by a tractor – the family lost the farm to the bank. They’re at Uncle John’s down the road planning and packing up to head to California. They kill the last pigs and salt them down for food on the road. From this depressing beginning, they set off with varying degrees of optimism about their new life in California. The newlyweds (with baby on the way) dream of a house and a fence and a steady job; the older folks a little more subdued but still expectant.
What follows is 479 pages of misery. People die. People starve. People are treated like animals. People are cheated. More people die. Glimmers of hope come but they’re always balanced by hopelessness: at the government camp the migrant workers find humanity but no work; at the other camps there’s work but no humanity. Pick your misery.
The only redeeming part of this book is the character of Ma Joad. Although she suffers along with (and probably more than) the rest of the family, her strength is the only thing that keeps them alive and sane. It’s said beautifully early in the book (pg 81):
She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was calm. Imperturbability could be depended on. And from her great and humble position in the family she had taken dignity and a clean calm beauty.
This beauty carried through all the way to the last page when even in conditions far beyond what most of will ever see, much less experience, Ma continues to guide, love, care for, and provide not only for her blood relatives but for those others who have become part of the migrant family.
Maybe it’s just too fresh; even as I’m writing this I’m pondering more how Ma influences Rose of Sharon and imagining what kind of woman she may grow into, after the book closes. I wonder at what the anger that has risen within the migrant family will lead to. I wonder what influence Casey’s words will have on them as they struggle to survive the workless winter. I wonder.
This is my Banned Book for the Back to the Classics Challenge. The link up for this category can be found HERE.