The 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