Sparked by Words

200px-johnsteinbeck_thegrapesofwrathThe Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck exposed me to the heart-wrenching human toll of the Dust Bowl and the heartless agriculture industry that treated its impoverished migrant workers as disposable drones. It sucker punched me the first time I read it – I’d had no idea about the backbreaking life of the people who picked the fruit and vegetables I ate. Middle class child that I was, I couldn’t tell you anything about the mechanics of farm to market produce, though I was fussy about how perfect my apple was.

It was another book I read in college, though not for a class. I think I picked it up because it was one of the senior year courses I couldn’t take. My final year of school I was supposed to have priority registration for classes, but found I was nearly last on the list. I didn’t get the Steinbeck seminar or the one for Shakespeare, Hemingway, Jane Austen, or Mark Twain – all of which I would have preferred rather than the one for Thomas Hardy. I signed up for the Hardy seminar as a Hail Mary tactic to be able to complete the English department requirements so I could graduate at the end of the semester. It was the only class with openings. (I ended up loving the Hardy class; he’s a truly great writer.)

So I grabbed Steinbeck’s book to prove I was a contender for the more popular seminars. Who knew that a book written in Tom Joad’s uneducated voice short on grammar but loaded with striking observations could slice my heart into more sections than the four chambers that medicine recognizes? Beginning with Tom Joad searching for his family after being released from prison, we follow the Oklahoma clan as they head west to California. The Dust Bowl that decimated the Great Plains and turned once fertile heartland into parched dirt incapable of supporting a seed, also destroyed the lives of the people who lived on those farms. Left with nothing but grit in their teeth, their determination to seek work, and their pride in their heritage, thousands of folks left the heartland and trekked toward the agricultural communities along the Pacific coast. Chapter by chapter, we accompany the Joads in their run down car as they encounter one dangerous, futile situation after another. Despite working in California fields and orchards laden with ripe food, the children are sick and hungry. It’s illegal even to pick up the fruit fall.

The migrants fight with each other, try to organize into effective governing units, betray each other, leave the camps and the family for better opportunities, and die, their bodies given out to hunger and illness. They also sing and share when possible. Life is not pretty and holds little hope of a better future, but they hold on.

Reminiscent of the ancient Hebrews leaving Egypt in search of the Promised Land, the Joads and other migrant families deal with the demands of a transient life, moving from one camp to another, hoping to make enough money to feed the family for one more meal, to fill the old car with enough gas to get to the next farm. At times dreary, violent, poignant, or infuriating, the book exposes the tenuous circumstances of people who have limited resources other than their family loyalty and their determination to try once more to make things work.

It’s been decades since I read the book but two of the many dramatic scenes are indelibly etched on my heart. The first, toward the end of the book, is when Rose of Sharon births a stillborn infant. With no money for a funeral, the baby is set into the river, its tiny body drifting downstream. Shortly after, Rose of Sharon encounters a man dying of starvation. She does what she can: she nurses him with the breast milk meant for her baby. Melodramatic, yes, but what more promising metaphor of hope for the future could one write?

I wished I’d been in the Steinbeck class where I could have learned from the professor about the political and social entities that destroyed the farming culture as much as the loss of topsoil that blew across the prairies, leaving it without nutrients and people without sustenance. I wanted to know more about the symbolism throughout the story, the historical background of the plot, and the actual people who inspired Steinbeck. Eventually I learned about the efforts of farm and labor unions to protect worker’s rights, but long before that, I began to think about where my apples came from, how they were cultivated, who grew and picked them.

Until a year ago, acres of land devoted to growing seasonal fruits and vegetables lined the 5 Freeway I travel a few times every week. Bent under sun or wind, covered with large hats and long sleeves, dozens of people harvested the crops that next day filled the grocery stores where I shopped. Other drivers might have ignored or not even seen these people, but I always looked, knowing their employment gains were hard won and possibly fleeting. This is what reading a great book does to me: it makes me see.

The Grapes of Wrath won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for G:

Geisha by Arthur Golden

The Ghost of Hanna Mendes by Naomi Ragen

The Girl in the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

The Girl on the Train by Paula Dawkins

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Golem and the Ginni by Helene Wecker

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Great House by Nicole Krauss

The Great Santini by Pat Conroy

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite G fiction books.

 

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and The Viking Press; artist: Elmer Hader

 

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Comments on: "G is for The Grapes of Wrath" (32)

  1. I have yet to read the book, although I’ve seen the movie a few times. I have a special interest in the story because my parents grew up during that terrible time. Of course, because their childhoods were in Colorado, they didn’t have the dust bowl to deal with.

    I finally have a book to share: God Game by Andrew Greeley. It’s a book that will make you ponder on what we put God through on a daily basis.

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    • My parents also grew up during the Depression, and they always carried that sense of being at the edge of poverty even when they’d built a comfortable life. It must have been a time so terrible that it left marks on their bones.

      Thanks for the suggestion about the Greeley book, Glynis. I’ll add it to my growing list.

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  2. Grapes is one of my DNFs. The others were Lorna Doone and Tristram Shandy, both of which I did go back and complete. But trudging down that never-ending dusty road in Grapes? No thanks. East of eden on the other hand, even though I didn’t realise the allegorical nature at the time, I loved. Out of your list, I’d probably go for the great gatsby.

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    • The Great Gatsby suggests a more sophisticated view of complex people; it’s talked and written about today more than Grapes, but that might be because the film with DiCaprio is more current. I didn’t feel I had much insight to offer regarding Gatsby, but I still feel the power of those final scenes in Grapes. I’ve never seen the movie, so the impact was from the book.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Rough Seas. (Can’t be the name on your passport.)

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      • I read the GG years ago and the film I saw was the Redford one. I think Rough Seas would be a fine passport name. Must apply for a deed poll change of name.

        I see another commenter has mentioned Tressell. (I can’t reply to them so here will suffice.) This is a brilliant book. It still applies today though, that’s the problem. I can see the comparison with Grapes. Ragged meant a lot to me because a) I’m British and b) my partner is a decorator, Tressell’s trade, so it may not resonate the same way with you. Still worth a read. It’s clever.

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      • My husband’s in the Painters and Allied Trades Union (the actual name is about a thousand words long so the abridged version will have to do.) He’s in the installation part of the business, usually working on trade shows. Not the fun, creative stuff, that just happens at home.

        OK, so you aren’t going to give me a hint. Rough Seas it will be. Of course, who am I to complain, me with the turquoise face. Had a difficult time convincing them to allow the picture on my passport.

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  3. While I always admired Steinbeck’s writing I’ve never been able to feel close to the characters. I was always aware of the points he was making versus connecting with his people. But Henry Fonda in the movie was pretty awesome. My mother and I went to see the Tony Award winning play on Broadway when Gary Sinise played the lead and all I remember is a swimming scene where we were treated to full frontal male nudity! It was funny seeing my mother’s reaction.

    In college we were always reading about workers rights and such. I liked The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist by Robert Tressell. The book is blatantly political but the characters really spoke to me. The book’s about how working class people in England related to their employers. It’s devastatingly sad (so like is probably the wrong word).

    I’m much more a fan of Great Expectations and Dickens’ characters. I think the humanity of Dicken’s characters comes out more than in Steinbeck’s work because the stories seem more about people than politics.

    As someone who experienced being a farm laborer on a socialist farm where presumably the rights of the workers were taken into account I found more instances of elitism and contempt for the “underclasses” than in regular life. Sometimes working toward an ideal society breeds more disappointment and hatred than anything else.

    On that happy note….

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    • As much as Grapes has garnered praise, it’s also earned criticism for how wooden the characters are. I didn’t see them that way the first time I read the book. Many years later I read that Steinbeck took much of his story from research done by Sanora Babb, and that some consider her book better written. I haven’t read hers so can’t make that comparison. Thanks for the Tressell recommendation, I’ll add it to my list.

      I’m still grinning from imagining your mom’s reaction to the play – I bet she was not expecting that.

      Thanks for your thoughtful contribution, Adrienne.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I had to read the book as a student too, although in my case it was set text. I really enjoyed it, so I didn’t mind being made to read it! In fact, it was one of my favorites from my college years. For me, the person who always stood out from the story most clearly was Ma Joad. What a great character!

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    • As I remember, over the course of the book, Ma Joad develops into a strong character, the person on whom the family can depend.

      What is a set text? I’ve never heard that term before.

      Thanks for stopping by, Bun.

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      • That’s right. She’s the one who holds the family together. By the way, a set text is one that a teacher or lecturer sets the students to read during a course. If you want good grades, those are the ones you really have to read. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to read them and still get a bad grade! 🙂

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      • Thanks for the clarification, Bun. We called it assigned reading, though that was in the last century – way in the last. Today it may also be a term familiar to students on this side of the pond.

        I regret not having more insight about my studies when I was a university student. I did all my assignments but never dug deeply into anything. My professors must have thought me a dunderhead. I’d love to return to college today.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I know how you feel. I’d be a better student nowadays.

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      • I try to tell kids just starting college how much I missed by my own laziness. Some will explore every avenue. Some will barely get off the bus.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful book with so much pith, you have to read it many times. Thanks for the reminder.

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  6. Thinking…Steinbeck would be heartened to know Grapes of Wrath meant so much to readers for so many generations. Your fine recounting freshened my memory and I realized both of us had the same reactions to it. Smiles…

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  7. Shari,
    Read it in college but didn’t remember a thing about it. Your review is so good that I don’t have to reread the book to remember what it was all about. Truly, your memory amazes me and my lack of long term memory terrifies me!

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    • Thanks, Judy, for your praise but I don’t deserve it. As I started thinking about the book, I vividly remembered the two scenes I talked about, and then recalled other parts. But the book made an enormous impression on me, and I think that’s why I remembered it so well. I read a book this past summer that was so blah, I had a hard time even remembering the most basic parts of it. All I know is I did read it. Our memories are funny parts of us.

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  8. Grapes of Wrath was a favorite high school read of mine (I LOVE Steinbeck’s work), and I did enjoy The Golem and the Jinni (so did Mom!), but my absolute favorite G book is one I read this past year: Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart. It’s historical fiction based on a true story–the title comes from an actual newspaper headline–about a young woman who becomes one of the first female sheriff deputies in the U.S. But Stewart tells the story with a light touch and humorous tone.

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    • Ilene, I’ve never heard of Amy Stewart’s book, but I’ve added it to my list. Coming from you with such genuine enthusiasm, it must be pretty wonderful. And you know I love historical fiction.

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  9. I’ve never read this book. I know a fair amount about the farm life. My grandparents lived on the land and taught each generation to live the same way. I’ve not used what I was taught as my brother has, but I value it’s importance, if course.
    I identified with your decision in college. We’ve all been there. I’ll take whatever class will get me out of here. Aren’t those always the ones we enjoyed the most. Smiles.

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  10. I have read many reviews of these books. I wonder why I haven’t bought it yet. I will read it this year. Thanks for this 🙂 In India, schools don’t have any novels as recommended reading during schooling years and it sucks so much.

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    • Hemangini, you’ve made me think about something that everyone should remember: educational emphasis is different from one country to the next, focusing on aspects of knowledge deemed important for kids to know to be able to participate responsibly in their own culture. Interesting that India doesn’t appear to appreciate fiction. I wonder why? Do you have a favorite Indian author?

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      • I think some literature should also be included in our educational system so kids can learn about different ways of narration and writing styles and so much more. I wonder why it is only limited to the graduate and post graduates of English language students.

        My favorite Indian author? I have many but most have written in Hindi or Gujarati languages. Like Munshi Premchand ( His novel Godan is example of old India.), Rabindranath Tagoe, Zaverchand Meghani, Jyotindra Dave, Jay Vasavada etc and if you ask about modern day writers, I don’t think I can call any of them my favorite but yes Amish Tripathi’s Shiva Trilogy is captivating.

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      • Thank you for all the suggestions – would you suggest an author to start with? It must be something I can read in English, even translation, which leads me to ask how many languages you speak? I can manage a bit of French but nothing more. I wish American education would emphasize more foreign language instruction in very early grades. So many people from other countries communicate easily in multiple languages but most American kids speak only English unless they are recent immigrants from other countries whose family still speaks their native language at home.
        It’s a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks for stopping by.

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      • If you like fantasy stories that include our Indian Gods then you would like Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi. If you like charming mountain stories then read any book by Ruskin Bond, his stories are filled with a genuine love for the hills, nature and human relationships as well as humor. There are many Indian authors of romance novels but I don’t like them. I’ll suggest others in future. 🙂

        Hope you ave a wonderful time today. Thanks for stopping by my blog too. 🙂

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      • Thank you, Hema, I’ve got a long list of books I want to read – now it’s longer.

        Liked by 1 person

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