By: John Steinbeck
Subject Matter: Migrant agricultural laborers; Rural families; Depressions; Labor camps; California; Oklahoma; Domestic fiction; Political fiction
I’m not to sure what to say about this one.
The Grapes of Wrath wasn’t at all what I expected. I don’t know what I expected, really.
In high school, a teacher made us watch the Henry Fonda version of this movie. But, as a sixteen-year-old, a black-and-white 1940s movie about the Great Depression doesn’t hold your attention. So the only thing I remember is a handsome Fonda sauntering down a very dusty road. That’s about as much as I saw.
At times, I really hated this book. It was slow; it was so political, so locked in its unique timeframe. Steinbeck was writing fiction that represented life in one reality: the migrant worker in California in the 1930s. The novel follows the Joad family from Oklahoma to California, but it does so within a framework of the migrant experience, interposing chapters about the general experience into the Joad narrative. If I could’ve cut out all of the non-Joad chapters, I might’ve.
But what would it be without those chapters?
This book wasn’t written to take you on a journey, as an escape, or to become the great American novel. It was written to expose a truth about humanity, the human condition, to expose a political and social issue, to give a voice.
So it would be only wrong to ignore all of that in favor of the more exciting narrative.
This book is a textbook classic. It’s extremely well-written; it’s a truly American novel; it’s both timeless and datable; it’s political and social and emotional and humanistic and moving and disturbing and heartbreaking. It deals with love and anger and oppression and poverty and family and hope and faith and disillusionment and the human condition as it is. It’s got a little bit of everything.
I tend to not like books (or movies especially) that are so hopeless. I confess I’m a bit of an escapist; the best books to me are the ones that take me somewhere outside of myself and let me experience something completely new and apart from me.
And I’m not saying that I’ve ever, ever, ever, ever experienced anything like what the Joads go through. But this book feels really real, really plausible, really scary in its feasibility. It’s too close for comfort.
So I didn’t love it. But I appreciate it.
And I know it’s long, but stick with it to the end. The last chapter is a game-changer. Steinbeck surprised me with how connected I realized I was to the storyline.
It’s an incredible novel. But not quite my cup of tea.
If you enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath, try these books:
(for other books by Steinbeck)
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
(for themes of hopelessness)
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
(for canonical fictional social commentary)
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig