Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck has been a favorite of mine for a long time. I've read Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday multiple times, along with Of Mice and Men and East of Eden. Last year I finally read Travels with Charley and a few years ago I read Tortilla Flat, and I've visited his house in Salinas as well as the National Steinbeck Center.

All that said, I wasn't a fan of The Grapes of Wrath. Like for most American teenagers in the 1970s, it was required reading in high school. Those were the years when I discovered Jane Austen and the Brontes, and I simply didn't want to read about an ex-convict and his destitute family trying to reach the Promised Land of California only to learn that the promises were empty. I struggled through it, wrote my paper, and couldn't imagine rereading it.

Now, 45 years later and hopefully more mature, I did decide to reread it. It was incredible. Truly a 5-star book worthy of the Pulitzer Prize it won in 1940. The writing is excellent with Steinbeck at his best. The structure is artful and effective. The characters and their story poignant, inspiring, heartbreaking, and very, very real.

Here's what I liked:

  • Steinbeck alternated chapters that were specific to the story of the Joad family with chapters about the plight of the Oklahoma farmers who faced depression, a dust bowl, and corporate takeovers of mortgaged farms that forced them to forsake the land their forbears had homesteaded and head west in order to survive. This technique married the specific with the general, making the story literature--that is, a story that transcends the particular and is universal.
  • The relationship of Jim Casy, the ex-preacher, and Tom Joad. Jim was one of my very favorite characters--definitely a Christ-type character who seeks to help the poor and downtrodden and oppressed. He gives Tom sage advice and is colorful and honest and willing to sacrifice himself for the people. His example inspires Tom to essentially become his disciple.
  • I loved Tom's Ma. She literally holds the family together and demonstrates that at our core, we are really a matriarchal species. 
  • I think it was very effective that the first half of the book was the journey to California, and the second half was what they found after they got there. It would be like Austen writing a novel that included what happened after the wedding.

I'm not sorry I read it in high school. Yes, that reading made me think I didn't like the book, and I certainly didn't appreciate it. But, I think reading it might have helped develop the sense of compassion and empathy that my parents tried to instill in me. I may not have liked it, but reading a book this powerful must have shaped or affected me to a degree I will never know. I know my three kids read it in high school also--interestingly, they liked it more than I did at the same age. I'm glad it's still required reading for high school students. We need more compassion and empathy in the world.

This book is my 20th century classic for the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge.


  1. I loved Grapes of Wrath and also, Easy of Eden and Of Mice and Men. Heck, I just love Steinbeck LOL

  2. I haven't read a book by him I haven't liked. Even in high school...I read Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath. I picked up East of Eden a couple of years ago. He's so readable. I've been wanting to reread Grapes for a very long time. I think I may do so this winter.

  3. I have actually never read this. I was also never assigned it in high school. It had been on my list awhile. I also think that the John Ford movie was one of the greatest films ever made.

    High school readings soured so many people on great books.

  4. I read it in High School too, in the eighties. It's obviously a continuer down the decades. I found it very depressing as a teen on top of school pressure, because of reasons you've mentioned. The poor Joad family, and many others, just couldn't get a break! But I've been considering reading it again as you've done.

  5. Oh such a classic. I too read it as a young person ... I think it blew me out of my chair ... it wakened me definitely. I could feel the dirt from that story. I would like to read it again so many decades later. I guess there's a new biography out this month of Steinbeck ... such an interesting author. Love his books too.

  6. I too read Grapes of Wrath in high school and I remember being disappointed because I loved Of Mice and Men. But I think I was too young to give Grapes of Wrath its due and I am so glad you loved the book and I am definitely going to give it a reread because Grapes of Wrath has much to say about our times right now,

  7. I love when books get better as we age. I like to think it's because we get better as people. :) This is one I still need/want to read. I'm hoping next summer.

  8. I am not sure I have ever read any Steinbeck at all. I know I was very bitter as a child because grapes were my favorite fruit and my parents explained why we were boycotting and I was too young to care. I saw this book in my grade school library and checked it out, thinking it would explain their reasoning but I am sure I did not get past the first chapter. Maybe it would work as an audio book on a long trip?