Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

I know we read The Grapes of Wrath in college, but land sakes, I cain't remember which class. Or, quite frankly, much about the book, other than Rose of Sharon gives her breast milk to a starving man somewhere in the book.

It started out slow, but has built into something grand.  I hope that's not a false start and it keeps getting grander.
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"The Western States nervous under the beginning change.  Texas and Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas, New Mexico, Arizona, California."  HA.  I get into this argument with Californians occasionally, who refer to every state west of Nevada as "the midWest."  I've sort of given up trying to explain that Kansas isn't the Midwest; or at least most of Kansas isn't the midwest (eastern Kansas has some Midwestern characteristics).  John Steinbeck knows - Kansas is the west.  (the Great Plains, actually).  I've never heard Arkansas referred to as the West, but I suppose parts of Western Arkansas have more in common with the West than the South.  Maybe. I've never been to Arkansas, so I cain't be sure.

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There is so much going on in this book, about modern farming practices; about big business, banks, finance, and economics; about government assistance; about refugees and emigrants (and immigrants); about collective bargaining and labor and socialist and Communism.

About modern farming practices, Steinbeck writes this specifically:  "So easy that the wonder goes out of work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of land and the working of it,and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation.  And in the tractor man there grows the contempt that comes only to a stranger who has little understanding and no relation.  For nitrates are not the land, nor phosphates and the length of fiber in the cotton is not the land.  Carbon is not a man, not salt nor water nor calcium.  He is all these, but he is much more, much more; and the land is so much more than its analysis."  This is about agribusiness as well, about large corporate farms swallowing up small farms.  And that the small farm is more connected to the land than the big corporations. Although conversely, you could say the small farms and big farms caused the Dust Bowl; they shouldn't even have been farming lands in western Kansas and the OK and TX panhandles, and eastern Colorado.  Big farm or little farm, those lands out there weren't meant to be plowed up, and the reaping of that plowing was the Dust Bowl.

Two scenes that - unexpectedly and surprisingly made me tear up:  the truck stop and Ma feeding the hungry kids.

The Bank of the West = Bank of America. Shenanigans in 1939, shenanigans today.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  That could be the whole moral of this plot.

"In the souls of the people, the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy,  growing heavy for the vintage."
It's like I say, the people on the lower rung can only take so much, and then they rise up.  American, French, Russian, Chinese Revolutions...
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The abrupt end - what does it all mean?  What happens to the Joads?  Steinbeck clearly didn't want us to know, but 75 years later, we know what happened to the Joads.  Their descendants are still here, living in the suburbs, and maybe even pulling the same crap that got pulled on them - but this time against Latinos.


The Grapes of WrathThe Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The last time I read  The Grapes of Wrath was twenty-some years ago in college; so essentially this was like reading it for the first time.  I certainly don't remember being so moved by it as a twenty-something; as a forty-something, I was heartsick.  It is certainly a book that seeps into your soul; in the Joads, Steinbeck has created incredibly sharp, distinct characters, and an exact setting.  The Depression is a kind of character in the book as well, as is Big Banks, and Agribusiness, and (although never named as such) The Man.  And although this is an historical document, it still has much to say to the 21st century reader.  We still have injustice; immigrants are still marginalized and brutalized; big business still swallows little men and women; we call them Recessions not Depressions, but the impact is similar.  There are still rich people, and the poor will always be with us.  The moral and meaning of The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 was more immediate; but the moral for us today could be "The more things change, the more they stay the same."


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