John Steinbeck, always and forever my favorite author. He observes and understands and writes so that I understand, so that I feel like I am observing his fictional and/or real world right along side of him. I think this was only the second time that I’ve read Grapes of Wrath; I remembered it as not one of my favorite Steinbeck books, but I absolutely loved it this time around.
It took me a long time to get thru it. I haven’t been in a big reading mood and this is a long and rather depressing book. I was most surprised by how relevant the book still is, it was not the escapist literature that I needed as a break from the current world news. It is the story of a family forced off of their Oklahoma farm who head west to California, but so many of the issues and the problems and injustices that Steinbeck illuminates are still central to the political discussions of today. The book alternates between telling the specific story of the Joad family and generalizing the situations in Oklahoma and California.
At its core, The Grapes of Wrath is the story of refugees forced off of their land and away from their homes. It is the story of these refugees migrating to a land where they assume they will be welcomed. It is the story of these migrants arriving and suddenly becoming a lesser class of humans. Wealth and power are concentrated in a small minority of individuals and large corporations and the law stands with them. The whole refugee crisis is ignited by an economic crisis, the Great Depression and compounded by an environmental/climate disaster, the Dustbowl. Banding together to survive, peaceful protesting and unifying movements too often are responded to with hate and fear and violence. Reading it was just like turning on the evening news.
In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry, Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.
And the latter was true, for how can a man without property know the ache of ownership? And the defending people said, They bring disease, they’re filthy. We can’t have them in the schools. They’re strangers. How’d you like to have your sister go out with one of ’em?
The local people whipped themselves into a mold of cruelty. Then they formed units, squads, and armed them – armed them with clubs, with gas, with guns. We own the country. We can’t let these Okies get out of hand.
Written as a contemporary novel, it is now read as historical fiction. People who like to read a lot into things say that is a retelling of biblical stories. The title phrase comes from the Book of Revelations, by way of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. I don’t like to read that much into it, I think it was about current events at the time. Although considering how it could also be an allegory for what is happening in the world today, I guess we still are telling those same stories over and over. And no one tells them better than John Steinbeck.