Wednesday, 24 October 2012

An American Classic Novel

The Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck - Penguin Classics

This is one of those books which is much lauded and for a long time I have thought that I should take it down from the bookshelf and see what all the fuss is about. The story is set in 1930's America and centres on the Joad family from Oklahoma. They are small time farmers and like many thousands of families at the time they lose their land due to the weather and the actions of Banks and large mono farmers. They decide to move to California lured by the promises of abundant work and luscious land. To them California is the promised land, the land of milk and honey and grapes. The biblical allusions are enhanced by the presence of the ex preacher Jim Casy who joins the family in their journey.  The promises turn out to be just that and the migrants are so numerous that the large farmers are able to cut rates of pay to a level that cannot support a family. There is no minimum rate of pay. Market forces are king.

Neither of the grandparents survive the drive. The eldest daughter's day dreaming husband becomes disillusioned at the lack of work and gives up on the family. Noah the deformed and slightly slow eldest son also leaves the family nucleus claiming that he is not loved as much as the other children and Jim Casy is ultimately murdered for his unionising efforts. The second son, Tom Joad, is eventually told by his mother to move away from the family so as to prevent his arrest for killing the assailant of Jim Casy and when the floods come at the end of the book Al Joad, the third son decides to stay with the family of the girl he has fallen in love with. The Joad family is certainly a family which does disintegrate but throughout all the tribulations and heartache it is Ma Joad who provides the stability and strength that the family needs. It is she rather than her husband who makes the big decisions.

There is a lot of social commentary in this book but it is also an enjoyable read. Whilst I can understand why Steinbeck inserted the short chapters of social background between the much longer chapters dealing with the story of the Joad family I do find the style slightly didactic. At times he is very definitely speaking from atop his soapbox. For me they come across as rather long asides from the story. It seems as if he is attempting to put everything in context just in case the reader is not able to do that him or herself.

Maybe his wife should have entitled the book, "His Truth is Marching On," rather than , "The Grapes of Wrath."

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