Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck
1940 Pulitzer Prize
5 stars - great book, but ever so depressing

Ach! I had to set aside time to get through the last 150 pages or so in one big swallow because reading this book was so depressing. Oh Pulitzer Prize committee, is there no joy in the world?

How many times have I read this? I don't know... four or five. Yes, a great story, an important story to read, but oh man!

The story centers around the Joad family. Tenant farmers in Oklahoma, they, along with an astonishing number of other farmers, are forced off their land during the depression. Forced out by big business that sees a profit to be made off of factory farming. 

With no where to go, nothing to eat, the Joads pack up and join hundreds of thousands (yes, you read that right) of people headed out to California in search of work. 

Predatory businessmen abound to take advantage of the migrants. They sell them useless vehicles, give them pennies for their belongings, all with an eye on the precious bottom line. Things aren't any better in California where the land owners take advantage of the abundance of labor to knock down wages below subsistence levels. The people are helpless. Attempts to unionize are met with violence from the local constabulary who are, apparently, in the pockets of the businessmen.

Well intentioned people in California, soon become fearful and desperate. People who originally helped the migrants with food or shelter are quickly overwhelmed by the number of them and close their doors, making the migrants increasingly threatening in their attempts to provide food for their families at any cost.

There just isn't any alternate path for these people. There's no ray of sunshine (despite the happy ending of the movie version). It's one big mess.

I recently had a discussion with a co-worker regarding welfare and unions. He spoke from his privileged middle class cocoon about how we should stop giving hand outs to people and how the unions are destroying business. Maybe I should hand him this book (although he proudly proclaims that he 'doesn't read novels'). I admit that both welfare and unions have gotten out of hand, but I would never support their total demise. What kind of country are we if we allow good people to starve or to be killed and maimed due to savage working conditions?

The Grapes of Wrath is raw and harsh. You won't find any happy scenes to allow you to snuggle down in your recliner and think "oh, that isn't so bad." That's OK. That's even good. Plenty of people in the world today living under similar conditions. No need to look back in time. 

The photo below has become the iconic image of that era and the hardship suffered by so many Americans. 

There are few independent farmers left in this country. What has driven them out? Don't downplay the part that you and I have played. Our constant quest for an endless supply of perfect fruits and vegetables and tasty meat, all at lower and lower prices has created an environment where big business wins every time.

Think about that the next time you balk at paying more for locally grown. 

But I won't leave you totally in despair. Check out this video from the Peterson Farm Brothers.

Now I'm off the cheer myself up with a good, wholesome murder mystery.


  1. I haven't read Grapes of Wrath for a long time. Your review's "adult" perspective makes my socio-political self curious to re-read. 40 years after the depression, after the Oklahoma migrants were settled here, Cesar Chavez organized Farm Workers in the Central Valley of CA.

    Loved the video!

  2. I haven't read this in forever either. I wonder if, re-reading it now, it would unseat the current holder of the "Most Depressing Book I Ever Read" title, which is "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy ...

  3. I haven't read this in forever! I have a hard time reading most of Steinbeck's work, though. I just prefer stuff with a more uplifting bent. I do know that farm life is A LOT of hard work! It's very sad that big business has been allowed to take so much of it over, though.

  4. I do what I can to buy from local farmers, including having a dairy farmer deliver my milk, although it's incredibly expensive - $6 per gallon. I can buy it at another farm store, located on the dairy farm for $4 per gallon, and I always buy my ice cream there. Fruits and veggies whenever possible from roadside stands, and I'm looking into getting half a cow from a guy up the road.

    I've only read this once, and it's just too depressing. As a kid who lived in a housing project until 2nd grade, and then in Granny's basement, and had parents who proclaimed that they would never take a handout whilst I always had to get free school lunch, I have decidedly mixed feelings on welfare and whatnot. But that's a discussion for another day, and one over which we have absolutely no control, because the politicians will never lessen the entitlement programs regardless of abuse.