A literary classic on the desperation and devastation of the United States told through they eyes of a family displaced from home and forced to find a new life in an unforgiving land.
It’s a true classic, but is it actually any good?
Author : John Steinbeck
Published in April, 1939
The Grapes of Wrath is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel that looks closely at the trials and tribulations of the Joad family as they are forced off their land in Oklahoma during the Great Depression. Times are tough and the paradise of California, though 2000 miles away, seems like the only real option to find a way to start over and make a better life for themselves.
All through the land, pamphlets advertise the abundance of work for anyone willing to show up, and so the great migration from the dust bowl regions of the Southern Midwest (Oklahoma, Kansas, etc.) to California begins. It’s a difficult journey and not everyone is going to make it, and those that do, as the Joad family discovers, find that the paradise promised was smoke and mirrors. To survive a hostile environment where work is scarce, food is scarcer, and people are desperate to do anything they can to keep themselves alive… the Joad family soon learns some hard lessons in humanity as those in power work to squash those who don’t.
In short, Steinbeck gives us an amazing look at the terrifyingly brutal life faced by all during the Great Depression. And it’s not for the faint of heart.
As far as characters go, there are a lot of people met along the journey, but the story focuses primarily on the Joad family. While imperfect, much like any family, with members having been in prison for murder, others struggling with alcohol, womanizing, and more, the Joad family are good people. Honest people that just want an opportunity to work the land, to find a little spot they can settle down and make enough of a living to take care of themselves, and are stubborn enough to never give up on that dream. Even when it becomes evident it may be impossible.
The Grapes of Wrath presents us with a truly magnificent display of Steinbeck’s writing skill, as he weaves a tale full of beautiful prose and heartbreaking characters. A tale that sucks you into this desperate, gritty world and then forces you to watch as the characters are lied to, exploited, betrayed, beaten and battered by a punishing life.
However, as beautiful as the writing is, this book is a slow burn. As a story, there is no ebb and flow of action that leads to a climactic finish. It’s a snapshot of history. A photograph of an extremely difficult point in American history for the people that survived it, and there is no happy ending to be found here. Well, other than knowing that eventually the Great Depression ended and times got better.
But for the Joad family, who knows their ultimate fate.
There are some things about his approach to this story that do take some getting used to, or maybe require some fortitude to grind through is a better description. Most important being the repetitive chapter and story structure. Steinbeck will write a beautiful, pulled back, chapter that describes a setting or a plot point in generic terms. Essentially telling the story but without any specific characters, opting instead for terms like “A man, the woman, the people, the land” instead of the Joad family or other specific character names. These chapters will be typically short and punchy, the details distilled down for maximum impact if lacking in personal connection since there are no specific characters mentioned.
Then, the next chapter will be a long chapter, full of dialogue written in phonetic style full of slang words and dialect written into the characters, that basically takes that same short punchy chapter and expands on it greatly through the eyes of the Joad family and their migration west.
The end of effect of this structure being that it often feels like one chapter tells you what’s going to happen next and then the next chapter spends page after page after page of detailing the same information, only through the eyes of the characters versus the “wide” shot. Almost like a movie that alternates between a wide/establishing shot with a voice over telling the plot and then a series of close-ups that then tell us the same story we just heard in the voice over.
It can feel a bit redundant and exhausting.
This is a book full of amazing characters, a heart-wrenching story, gritty darkness as the characters struggle to survive, and a master class of fantastic literary prose. But it’s also a book that is very slow and plodding in it’s pacing and, with the style of writing and soul wrenching subject matter, leaves you feeling drained and exhausted as the grind of chapter after chapter of struggle unfolds.
As a story that is meant to share the struggle people of this country faced during the Great Depression, as people fought with all they had just to survive another day, it’s wildly successful.
The Grapes of Wrath brings a beautiful and heartbreaking focus on humanity. Through this story we are given a look at the true power of family, the horror of how far people will go to maintain their positions of power, and ultimately how, no matter what, there is a determination to find a way to survive no matter the cost.
This isn’t a fairy tale with a happily ever after ending.
It’s a dark read that will wear on you as you push through it. But it’s a journey worth taking, if only to gain an appreciation for what that generation of people had to go through in order to simply survive.
Without their determination and grit, OUR generations wouldn’t exist. And this story serves as a tremendous monument of thanks that is worth the journey to experience. Heavy subject matter makes for heavy reading, and this look at the intense brutality of the Great Depression is not to be taken lightly.
It’s every bit deserving of it’s legendary status, but it is incredibly difficult to get through. A heartbreaking story with moments of beauty that seep through the ever present horrifying darkness and difficulty of life for these characters.
The bottom line is that it’s a grind to get through, even though it’s FULL of masterful, powerful, and beautiful writing from John Steinbeck.
As such The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck gets a 3 out of 5 stars.
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