The Grapes Of Wrath – John Steinbeck

“Why, Tom - us people will go on livin' when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people - we go on.'    The Grapes Of Wrath

“Why, Tom – us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people – we go on.’ The Grapes Of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath is the story of the Joad family and is set during the Great Depression.  The Joads are ‘Okies’ – poor farmers, displaced and desperately seeking work, as their farms were repossessed after crop failure due to the Dust Bowl.  The story begins with Tom Joad, who has just been released from prison.  Upon returning home is surprised to find nobody there, and very few people for miles around.  he learns that his family has gone out west, to California, to seek a future for themselves and so he sets off to catch them up.

Setting off with his friend, Jim Casy, Tom soon catches up with the rest of his family – Ma and Pa Joad, Uncle John, Tom’s brothers Al, Noah and Winfield, his sisters Ruthie and pregnant Rose Of Sharon, Rose Of Sharon’s husband Connie and Grampa and Granma Joad.  Together they set off for California, believing in the promise of work.  What they discover is that the roads are packed with people just like them looking for exactly the same things – dignity, hope and a future.

It won’t really spoil the book to let you know that not all of them make it to California, and those that do find it doesn’t live up to all their expectations.  Competition for work is fierce and bosses are ruthless, immoral and greedy.  As soon as I began reading this story, I knew things weren’t going to work out too well for the Joads, there’s a sense of doom throughout as their utter desperation and misery develops.  Yet they are a family who will stick together and never give up hope.

It’s not a fun read, but it’s an important subject matter.  In a powerful first world country, citizens are, not only allowed, but compelled to live like this.  Yes, it’s fiction, but it’s based on fact.  Steinbeck lived in California during the Depression and witnessed the treatment of migrant workers.  This inspired him to write The Grapes Of Wrath, as he himself said

 “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects].” He famously said, “I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags,”

And he does.  By the end, I was left with a deep sense of hopelessness.  The Joad’s ordeal is relentless, there’s no neat happy endings here.  Despair follows heartache follows sorrow.  And yet, they still manage to keep a glimmer of hope alive, I suppose there’s just no other option.  Because of their determination this isn’t as depressing to read as it could be.  Of course, the subject matter is depressing, but the writing style keeps you interested throughout.  It’s an important book and one that has rightly been voted onto many ‘miust read’ lists.  It is quite long and I’d certainly make sure you begin reading it whilst you’re in the right mood, but you won’t regret picking it up, however heartbroken you may be by the end.

Sample Text:

“I know, Ma. I’m a-tryin’. But them deputies- Did you ever see a deputy that didn’t have a fat ass? An’ they waggle their ass an’ flop their gun aroun’. Ma”, he said, “if it was the law they was workin’ with, why we could take it. But it ain’t the law. They’re a-working away at our spirits. They’re a-tryin’ to make us cringe an’ crawl like a whipped bitch. They’re tryin’ to break us. Why, Jesus Christ, Ma, they comes a time when the on’y way a fella can keep his decency is by takin’ a sock at a cop. They’re working on our decency”.”

Further Reading:

If you like stories set during the Great Depression you might like Their Eyes Were Watching God

If you like this author you might like Of Mice And Men

If you like following a family through all their trials and hardships you might like The Sound And The Fury

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