Monday, November 24, 2008

What I read: "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck

I know I had to have read "The Grapes of Wrath" at some point in high school, but all I could remember about it was the daughter named Rose of Sharon and the fact that the Joads had to leave Oklahoma. I must have read the book at a point in my life when I thought times would never be tough, or perhaps I really just disliked my teacher at the time and projected that onto this book. Whatever the reason, I didn't remember much about this book, and that's a shame.

I can't believe I didn't remember Steinbeck's poetic prose:
In the middle of that night the wind passed on and left the land quiet. The dust-filled air muffled sound more completely than fog does. The people, lying in their beds, heard the wind stop. They awakened when the rushing wind was gone. They lay quietly and listened deep into the stillness. Then the roosters crowed, and their voices were muffled, and the people stirred restlessly in their beds and wanted the morning. They knew it would take a long time for the dust to settle out of the air. In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth. It settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.
Or the strength and courage of a family plagued by misfortune and tragedy:
Ma looked down at her hands, lying together like tired lovers in her lap. "I wisht i could wait an' not tell you. I wisht it could be all--nice."
Pa said, "Then Granma's bad."
Ma raised her eyes and looked over the valley. "Granma's dead."
They looked at her, all of them, and Pa asked, "When?"
"Before they stopped us las' night."
"So that's why you didn' want 'em to look."
"I was afraid we wouldn' get acrost," she said. "I tol' Granma we couldn' he'p her. The fambly had ta get acrost. I tol' her, tol' her when she was a-dyin'. We couldn' stop in the desert. there was the young ones--an' Rosasharn's baby. I tol' her." She put up her hands and covered her face for a moment. "She can get buried in a nice green place," Ma said softly. "Trees aroun' an' a nice place. She got to lay her head down in California."
The family looked at Ma with a little terror at her strength.
I feel like I just read this book for the first time. It got under my skin. I dreamed about it. I thought about how we would handle such desperate times. Despite today's economic climate, it's hard to imagine having to live the way the Joads did -- 14 people traveling in a truck made by cutting away the back of a sedan, sleeping under a tarp, eating little more than fried bread and black coffee. It often occurred to me the reason this book was so sharply opposed when it was first published.
A kind of insurance developed in these nights. A man with food fed a hungry man, and thus insured himself against hunger. And when a baby died a pile of silver coins grew at a door flap, for a baby must be well buried, since it has had nothing else of life.
Talk of unions and strikes and even a kind of socialism, disguised as helping those less fortunate must have scared the haves and stirred the have-nots.
The great companies did not know that the line between hunder and anger is a thin line. and money that might have gone to wages went for gas, for guns, for agents and spies, for blacklists, for drilling. On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. and the anger began to forment.
Above all "The Grapes of Wrath" is beautifully written and worth reading or re-reading.

It was featured in this year's All Pikes Peak Reads, but I was late in reading it and getting in on discussions. I see it as a timely selection.

1 comment:

Kate said...

I know, right? How could PPLD have been so prescient? You know they have to plan these things pretty far in advance, so was their choice of the Dust Bowl/Depression as a theme just a matter of chance?