Friday review: The Grapes of Wrath

I just finished it. One of the finest books of the last century.

I’m still in a sort of muted shock. The last time I felt this way was when I finished Beloved. It is a book that has something to say and is right to be saying it.

The Grapes of Wrath, published way back in 1939, tells the story of the Joad family as their farm in Oklahoma fails during the depression era and they are forced to move west to search for work. Steinbeck writes very well (he won the Nobel Prize in 1962) and The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. The narrative switches between the Joad family and chapters where a certain setting or state is described in detail. A chapter early on where Steinbeck describes how it’s not the man driving the tractor who is going to wreck the Joad’s house, it’s the bank but the Joads shouldn’t get mad at the tractor-man and not at the bank cause the bank doesn’t know and doesn’t care. I surely am not doing it justice, but it is one of the best things I’ve read all year.

The reader feels the Joad’s pain and hunger and desperation as the family falls apart, through death or because people simply leave. The main character, Tom Joad, is just out of prison and on parole so even by just leaving Oklahoma he is breaking the law and all his actions later in the book are influenced by this.

Near the end of the story Tom has been hiding after killing a man but feels he has to leave. He tells his mother and she worries that she’ll never see him again and he tells her:

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 … I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready.

This started Rage Against the Machine’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad playing in my head and gave me goosebumps. The lyrics don’t match the book but are pretty close:

Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.”

The Grapes of Wrath says so much about class struggle and human decency that I simply can’t do it justice. I feel overwhelmed by the books sheer quality.

It is one of those books that everyone should read. When it came out it was burned and banned, certainly a sign of quality.

And the thing about great enduring works of art is that they enter the culture, inspire more art. And The Grapes of Wrath certainly do that, as the  Bruce Springsteen song shows, as do the movie and stage versions of the book. I myself use language from the first chapter of the book in my current writing, do describe the heat and dust of the setting my novel takes place in.

The Grapes of Wrath is a five-star book, this should be clear to anyone who reads it, whether they like the book or not. There is a certain enduring quality to five star books like Grapes of Wrath, Beloved, Great Expectations and others that comes through as you read.

I leave you now, with the video to Rage Against the Machine’s cover of Springsteen’s Ghost of Tom Joad.