“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck

Here’s a coincidence for you – I just finished reading The Grapes of Wrath a few days ago, and then today on NPR I heard that it was published 70 years ago today!  Surprisingly, I never had to read this in high school — this was my first time reading the book.  And I really enjoyed it!  The story of the Joad family is tragic, but they somehow always maintain hope.

The book in a nutshell: it’s the Depression, and the Joads (along with many other farmers) are forced off their land in Oklahoma by the banks.  Small family farms just can’t turn a profit anymore – they are bought up and plowed by tractor in what I suppose is the beginning of industrialized agriculture.  The farmers hear about the promised land of California – where sun-drenched oranges are just waiting to be picked off the trees by anyone who wants one.  The Joads buy a run-down jalopy, load up their stuff and the family, and set out on Route 66.  Grandpa and Grandma die along the way – symbolic of moving from old to the new?  (Similarly, as the Joads look down on California’s Central Valley for the first time, Tom Joad says that the ones who are really seeing it are Ruthie and Winfield – the two youngest Joads.)

When they finally arrive, there are definitely oranges (and a lot of other agricultural wonders) ripe on the trees, but figuratively there is a man with a shotgun in the orchard who will shoot anyone who picks one for himself.  There are thousands of “Okies” and not enough work to go around.  The big land owners have in effect tricked people into coming to California with their stories and flyers (“Why would they print up flyers about there being jobs if they didn’t have jobs?  Those flyers is expensive!”) and now that they have a large, desperate labor pool they can save big bucks on labor costs.  The Joads travel around from job to job, eating and living from day to day.

The main theme that keeps creeping up is capitalism vs. communism/socialism.  The banks forcing Oklahoma farmers off their land and the landowners in California paying pitiful wages do what they do because they can, and because if they didn’t they would go out of business.  The farmers/workers on the other hand, realize that if they united against the bosses they would have the real power, but when they try to strike they are arrested and repressed.

This book made me glad for the time I live in today – not-so-pure capitalism with elements of social programs and the right to unionize.  Also, for all the talk of the modern financial crisis…we ain’t seen nothing compared to the trials of the Joads.

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2 responses

  1. Good post. Glad you’re moving from zombies, etc. to the classics. 🙂 I’m in the middle of reading a non-fiction book for school: “The Next Time We Strike: Labor in Utah’s Coal Fields.” Basically, the book is a narrative about a cluster of UT coal camps from 1900 to 1933. In that time there were 3 strikes and 2 major mining disasters (a total of 371+ dead). They were real-life Joads in Carbon Co. UT, except they happened to be Italians or Finns or Greeks. I still can’t get over how the officials from the company that owned these mines displayed such spectacular disregard for life and labor. What’s shocking is that it wasn’t unusual for the time. I, too, am glad for the right to unionize, for OSHA, for worker’s comp, for life insurance, and for laws and technology that make it harder (but unfortunately not impossible) for anyone in a position of power to manipulate their employees in order to make a few dishonest bucks. Although the book I’m reading is non-fiction, every chapter has the same themes of capitalism vs. communism/socialism you found in Grapes of Wrath. I suppose it’s a bit surprising that despite it all the US managed to hold on and didn’t have its own Bolshevik Revolution.

  2. Hmm, interesting. I think that many people today have forgotten (or never knew) how different life was for the “working class” just a few generations ago. The news talks about us being in a second Great Depression….when you read about what the first one was like, I think you can begin to realize we are (thankfully) a long way off.

    And don’t worry, I’ll get back to the zombies/aliens/pirates/ninjas/etc soon enough! 😉

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