Year Published: 1939
First Sentence: To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)
So, here we go. The book that the Modern Library Board of the late 1990s called the tenth best English language novel of the 20th century.Also one of the very last books that I'm reading from The List. I feel like I need to review this both as a List book, and as a Top Ten book.
So, what is it?
Everyone knows the title The Grapes of Wrath. Less people know that John Steinbeck wrote it. Even less know that it's about a family of Oklahoma sharecroppers who become migrants during the The Great Depression. Or at least, that's my impression of what people know about the book. Certainly it's about all I knew about it before finally picking it up. Imagine my surprise the first time I read the name Tom Joad (so this is where it comes from).
Tom Joad is the first member of the Joad family we meet. He's young and has just been paroled for good behaviour, after ending up in jail several years before for killing a man in self-defense. Having been in jail, he's been insulated from what's been going on among the Oklahoma farmers, which is to say that thanks to the combination of an ecological disaster (drought plus nutrient depletion of the soil) and modern innovation (tractors, basically), his family and many others are being driven off the land. And that's literally driven off by the way, with their homes being knocked off of their foundation by farm equipment, so that they have to load up whatever belongings they can in a makeshift truck, planning to drive to California. THey've been promised plentiful work in California by handbills distributed by various large farming companies.
Anyway, Tom finds his family on the very brink of leaving for California, and joins them even though it means breaking his parole by crossing state lines. There are a ton of Joads, by the way, and Steinbeck develops them all, but I'm not sure I need to introduce everyone for the purposes of this review. Basically just know that this is really a whole family, 3.5 generations (Tom's sister, Rose of Sharon, is pregnant with her first baby, and her husband Connie is along for the ride).
The book alternates back and forth between the story of the Joad family and the story of the Depression and the migrant people writ large. It is absolutely harrowing. These times are long gone but I couldn't help thinking of similar things going on today, like the thousands of oilfield workers losing their jobs, or young people with enormous student loan debt being unable to get ahead, or huge, profitable corporations laying off workers, cutting benefits, etc.
I'm getting sidetracked. The Joads move cross country and simultaneously their situation goes from bad to worse. They lose members along the way. The first to go is one of their dogs, who gets killed by a car only a day or so into their journey. This isn't a very plotty book, so I can't really say much about what happens outside of listing the various episodes that Steinbeck chooses to show us.
In case it's not obvious by now, I loved this book. I've had a feeling that I would ever since reading East of Eden a few years ago. East of Eden is more quotable and has a "better" villain, in the sense that moustache-twirling psychopath Cathy is more fun to read about that moustache-twirling psychopath Capitalism, the villain in The Grapes of Wrath as well as The World in 2020*. The book doesn't end on a high note when it comes to the Joads' well-being. It does end on a note of intense human generosity and tenacity, though, and I won't be forgetting it anytime soon.
More articulate writers than I have already written many many words about this book, and so I'm going to leave off her for now. Just know that as far as I'm concerned, The Grapes of Wrath deserves its reputation.
* I wrote this review in January 2020. Capitalism is still a villain but there's a bigger one that's kind of taken over in the meantime.
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You'll have to get off the land. The plows'll go through the dooryard.
And now the squatting men stood up angrily. Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. And Pa was born here, and he killed weeds and snakes. Then a bad year came and he had to borrow a little money. An' we was born here. There in the door—our children born here. And Pa had to borrow money. The bank owned the land then, but we stayed and we got a little bit of what we raised.
We know that—all that. It's not us, it's the bank. A bank isn't like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn't like a man either. That's the monster.
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