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.