The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
I’m going to tell you the plain truth: This book was so depressing that it took me two years to read. And I actually like depressing books. So suck on that for a while.
Even so, I actually kind of love it. I appreciate its greatness. I appreciate its anger and honesty. I appreciate that a book like this, if published today, would probably be read by about half a thousand critics and six readers, each of whom would write a useless strongly-worded letter to some farming authority. Meanwhile Steinbeck, the lucky dog, gets to punish high school students throughout eternity with the bleakest tale of western migration ever told.
But here are the juicy details.
Setting: Oklahoma to California in the 1930s.
Story: Victims of changing practices in the farming industry, the members of the voluminous Joad family have been cast off their Oklahoma land. So they head out to California, where they’ve been told they’ll find work a-plenty, pickin’ peaches and baskin’ in the sun. Then all the bad things in the world happen.
Writing: The majority of the story is told from the perspectives of various family members and is thus written in “Okie” dialect. This, as authentic as it surely is, can get really annoying. However, Steinbeck incorporates these interludes in his own language that are magically beautiful.
Themes: This is really an ultimate man vs. The Man kind of story—a family simply trying to scrape by with a little dignity, beaten down at every turn by a system that is both nonsensical and inhumane.
But what’s the deal, you wonder, with the “grapes of wrath”? It really sounds like some freaky Stephen King plot where the grapes fling themselves off the vines and burrow into people’s eyeballs. I drove all through California last weekend and could not stop staring at all those creepy little buggers on the hillsides.
But that, it turns out, is not the meaning at all. The book’s thematic climax spells it out:
“There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate—died of malnutrition—because the foot must rot, must be forced to rot.
“The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quick-lime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; 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.”
So relax. You don’t need to be afraid of the grapes. Unless you are of course The Man, and then the people are coming for you.
Best thing about it: This is an important book. It just is. You can tell when you read it, even when you hate it.
Worst thing about it: Well, you know. It’s really freaking depressing.
Final thoughts: You should probably read it. I’m just sayin’.