The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
4 out of 5 stars
After last summer's Steinbeck-palooza, I knew I wanted to try one of his bigger books this summer. When I found Grapes of Wrath at HPB for $1.00, my decision was made for me...maybe next year I'll tackle East of Eden. Before I started Grapes, I was expecting it to be this huge, daunting work of literature. I should have known better. Steinbeck's voice shines thru in this story about a family trying to survive the Dust Bowl and Great Depression of the 1930s and made it an easy, if not always pleasant, read. I was also helped along by Harry F who conveniently summarized each chapter for me. Usually they give up after a few chapters, but Harry made it all the way to the bitter end and made his feelings clear. ;)
It's hard to imagine the conditions that forced the Joad family and thousands of others to pick up and leave their homes. I've seen drought conditions here in Texas, but I can't even comprehend this: The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk, and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn. And even if their crops happened to survive the dust storms, they had to deal with the banks after that. Forced to borrow a little bit of money to keep it going, they now have to pay that back. And in most cases, that means giving up the land that their great-grandfather grew up on. Does this feeling of ownership exist still? That sense of pride in your land and what you've grown, the comfort of knowing that generations of your family will live and work and die on this land long after you are gone?
But it's our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it's no good, it's still ours. That's what makes it ours--being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.
While this book is about that era on a wider scale, it is also about one specific family, the Joad's, and their struggles. Tom Joad Jr has just gotten out of prison (he murdered a man, but in self-defense) and after meeting a lapsed-preacher, Casy, on the road, they make their way to Tom's family home, which they find completely deserted and demolished. Tom fears the worst until he is told by a neighbor that his family is staying with an Uncle down the road. They get there and Tom is greeted with happiness and relief from everyone...and just in time too, as the Joad family is packing up to head West. They can't make it anymore in Oklahoma and have heard that there are thousands of jobs in California, picking fruit and cotton. Even though it will violate Tom's parole, he doesn't hesitate to go with them and talks Casy into going too.
Casy was really interesting to me. He had an epiphany of sorts about religion once all these people started losing their homes and just decided that he couldn't preach in the normal sense anymore. "Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe it's all men an' all women we love; maybe that's the Holy Sperit [Spirit]--the human sperit--the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of." He just kind of speaks his own mind now and even though he doesn't think so, he is helping people still. He helps the Joad family when they lose several family members, thru death and desertion, on the way to California and keeps Tom from going back to jail numerous times and eventually making an ultimate sacrifice for them. Tom goes thru a tremendous amount of personal growth throughout the book and a large part of that is thanks to Casy.
"Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain't got a soul of his own, but on'y a piece of a big one--an' then--Then it don' matter. Then I'll be aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where--wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an'--I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build--why, I'll be there."
Sometimes I hate Steinbeck for knowing exactly how I feel and being able to put it in words. Do you ever get that feeling while reading? I'd really like to know what it was and what you did after. In my case, that quote above really relates to the political-ness that has been going on in Texas the last few weeks and I feel like I need to do *something*. I want to be more involved and make my voice heard, just like Tom and Casy. Hopefully without the head injuries and running from the cops though. :P
The twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream.