Book Review of The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath
kcrouth avatar reviewed on
Helpful Score: 4

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is one of the most powerful books i've read. It affected me on many levels, some of which i'll mention in this review. Despite having heard about this story since high school, loving the song "The Ghost of Tom Joad" by Bruce Springsteen, and having seen the Henry Fonda movie several times, this is my first reading of this novel. It has certainly earned its place in the top novels of American Literature, and, for reasons both good and bad, is a timeless story that should be read by every generation as time goes on.

The Grapes of Wrath is the elegantly told story of the Joad family, poor sharecroppers, forced from their farm in Oklahoma during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era, and their subsequent migration to the "promised land" of California. Much of their journey and experiences are told in their own words, in the vernacular of the "Okies", as they were derogatorily referred to. Interspersed through the story is Steinbeck's commentary on the reasons for the sharecroppers dire situation and some of the systemic disfunction that left hard working people fighting for their very survival in a nation of wealth, abundance, and power. This is a story of desperation and hope, failure and hopelessness in the face of a financial, political, and social system in the U.S., that dehumanizes and destroys the bodies and spirits of good hard working people.

One of the levels on which this story moved me was related to my own family's history. My father and his siblings grew up during this same time period, across the state line, in the Ozarks of Missouri. Unlike the fertile river bottom farm land of the Missouri River and Mississippi River valleys in northern and eastern Missouri, the Ozark mountains are a rocky, unfriendly place to scratch out a living by farming. This was especially true in during the Great Depression. I think that one of the few ironic advantages the poor farmers of the Ozarks had over the sharecroppers of Oklahoma during the Depression was that the Ozark land was so poor that no large farming companies or banks wanted it, and therefore the farmers were not forced off. This at least saved the dirt poor farmers like my grandpa from having their land taken from them and turned into large commercial farms. In spite of being able to keep their land, my father and most of my uncles and aunts moved from the Ozarks to California during this period of history (during the 1930's). Altho the specific reasons were different, i believe the reasons were similar (economic collapse of small farming economy) and i felt like i was reading some of my own family history in this novel.

Unfortunately, the timelessness of this story is in part due to the fact that the same humiliation and dehumanization of marginalized groups in the U.S. is still going on today, and is caused by the same systemic disfunction that existed in the Depression years. Corporate and personal greed and the valuation of profits over people in the U.S. society is stronger than ever today. The timeless story of The Grapes of Wrath needs to be told today more than ever. As i think back in the history of my own family, my parents and my siblings, and the struggles they faced during the 1960's and 70's to put food on our table and clothes in our closets, i see that the hardship and struggle was in a large part due to the same systemic disfunction that existed in the Depression years. Our national priorities are political and economic power rather than the health and welfare of our citizens and immigrants. Our society is only as strong as our weakest member, not the strongest. We would be wise to learn from our mistakes, and help create a society that values all people, not just those living in privilege.

Six stars for this one!