Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath

I recently finished Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath for the second time, a reading experience that was as fine as any one I have had. Like most people my age, I first read the story of the Joad “fambly,” migrant workers looking for food and work during the Great Depression, as required reading in high school. To put it mildly, I did was not as attentive a reader as I pride myself to be now. In fact, even though I vividly remember Rose Of Sharon’s “mysterious smile” from the novel’s ending, I cannot honestly say I even finished it. My copy from that time bears distinct weathering of a devoured novel on the first 510 or so pages, and then seems untouched for the last 60, as if the reader lost interest or disappeared. The novel has always stuck in my memory though. The story of the Joad family’s journey from dust-laden Oklahoma to a California filled with so much hope yet peopled with so much despair remains as haunting and powerful today as ever. I held onto my copy knowing someday I would return to it, something I rarely do. I am glad that I did. Even knowing the novel’s ending could not diminish its power upon reading it again. Steinbeck’s lyrical humanism is raw, honest, painful to sit through, yet ultimately incredibly moving. The novel is big, weighing in at almost 600 pages, and a loud call to arms for a people who are failed by their land, country, and even their own family. But Grapes finds its greatest strengths in it small, quiet moments. Steinbeck peppers each section of the Joad’s journey with lyrical chapters that describe everything from a turtle crossing the highway to tractors coldly taking over people’s farmland like a plague of locusts. Steinbeck is able to use the sections to introduce his broader themes, and them intimately demonstrates them with the actions and perils of the Joad family. One cannot leave the novel without feeling the ravishes of the Great Depression and the following displacement and migration of so many workers, as well as the helplessness of all those involved. And yet for all its pain, the novel is not entirely hopeless. Things get bad for the Joads, but the novel never drown in despair. Describing group of workers he has seen on the road, the novel’s fallen preacher Jim Casey collects much of the acute loss of faith many on road to work have felt. “But,” he adds, just when his followers want to give up, “when they’re all workin’ together, not one fella for another fella, but one fella kind of harnessed to the whole shebang—that’s right, that’s holy.”

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