The Grapes of Wrath, written in 1939 by John Steinbeck (1902-1968), is considered by many literary critics to be the greatest of all American novels. This is a book about the Great Depression, and one poor sharecropper family’s struggle to survive the worst deprivations that American society in the 1930’s had to offer. Indeed, in my view, perhaps no American work of fiction fits the label of “The Great American Novel” better than Steinbeck’s wonderfully written and still highly controversial masterpiece of fiction.
The story is both gripping and well told. Set in the 1930’s, in America’s “Dust Bowl,” it is the tale of the Joad family, a large clan of poor Oklahoma sharecroppers, and how they are forced into a decision to migrate to California. It’s also the story of the many trials and sufferings that they endure during their long and harrowing journey.
Lured by the promise of high paying jobs in California, the Joads, after much deliberation, decide to uproot themselves and make the journey westward. It’s not an easy decision for them; it’s almost an act of sheer desperation for this close-knit, extended family. They have been farming this same piece of Oklahoma sod for generations. Now, both the forces of nature and the forces of economics have conspired against them. A combination of severe drought and poor farming practices have turned this once fertile area into a barren wasteland covered with several inches of dust. Large conglomerates have taken over all the land in the area, and have forcibly kicked all the sharecroppers out of their houses and off their farms. Family homesteads have been systematically destroyed by these greedy new landowners.
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So, the Joads, this proud, hard-working family, must go. They sell most of their worldly possessions in order to buy a run-down old jalopy. The whole family – Ma and Pa; Granma and Granpa; Tom (the oldest son, and an ex-convict recently paroled from prison); Al (Tom’s younger brother); Uncle John (Pa’s brother); Ruthie and Winfield (Ma and Pa’s youngest children); the heavily pregnant Rose of Sharon (Tom’s younger sister) and her husband Connie; and the Reverend Jim Casy (a family “friend”) – pack themselves, along with their essential goods, aboard their decrepit old vehicle, and depart for the “promised land” on America’s west coast.
The vast majority of this compelling novel tells the story of the Joads’ plight while on the road. They are almost immediately confronted with the death of a loved one. This compounds their grief at the loss of their home and possessions. They find that most people they meet along the way despise, reject, and vilify them as dirty, filthy “Okies;” they receive aid and comfort from very few along their route. Yet, they remain undaunted; throughout their struggles, they remain focused on the ultimate realization of a dream: jobs, high pay, and a new life in California.
But the worst is yet to come. Upon their arrival in the Golden State, they find their dreams shattered. There are no high paying jobs; local residents, fearful of a takeover by this mass migration of “Okies,” resort to violence and intimidation to rid themselves of a group of people they despise. The Joads find themselves bouncing from migrant camp to migrant camp. They are forced to flee one camp after Tom gets into a fight with a deputy sheriff. They spend several weeks in one well-run, well-equipped, and clean camp. They travel nearly 70 miles at the promise of high paying jobs as fruit pickers, only to find themselves cruelly exploited by union-busting farm bosses.
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The great climax of The Grapes of Wrath sees the Joads once again suffering in unspeakable squalor as they attempt to survive the violent forces of nature and humanity in this, the great western “promised land.”
The basic plot of The Grapes of Wrath is exciting, suspenseful, gripping, and possessed with a terrible beauty. But, this is not just a novel with a simple, basic plot. It is, indeed, a highly complex book, written perhaps in the finest traditions of the early twentieth century “muckraking” novels. It exposes the worst societal ills that were prevalent in American society of the 1930’s. Truly a great book, but see for yourself! Pick up a copy of this classic book! Another novel I need to recommend — completely unrelated to Steinbeck, but very much on my mind since I purchased a “used” copy off Amazon is “The Losers’ Club” by Richard Perez, an exceptional, highly entertaining little novel I can’t stop thinking about.