Review: The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature for The Grapes of Wrath, which means that what I think of it doesn’t matter very much.  I have not come away from my recent brushes with Steinbeck particularly impressed, though I have enjoyed some of his work.  I confess that those brushes left me somewhat reluctant to read more of him, but after The Forgotten Man, I was kind of primed for the time period.

Grapes is extremely impressive.  It is well structured, well written, factual, and sympathetic.  It manages to capture the migration of poor farmers from the dust bowl to California and migrant farming during the depression at levels from the strain on individual families to the larger economic forces behind the change.  In fact, though I mentioned the dust bowl, Steinbeck doesn’t; to him, the economic forces were going to cause people to lose farms and migrate even without the drought and erosion of the dust bowl.

Capturing all this is a difficult balancing act.  Structurally, Steinbeck alternates chapters between the large trends and the plight of a specific family, the Joads.  The wide lens shows that the Joads are not alone in their plight and the close chapters show us the specifics troubles of a family in crisis.  He also moves the group successfully through the most informative points in the migration.  They aren’t placed at specific historic events like some early-thirties Forrest Gump, but Steinbeck brings his family into contact with realistic examples of the best and worst of the depression in California.  All the situations the family encounters follow from the real situations; everyone is motivated by real emotions and economics.  There are no mustache-twirling villains here, nor white-hatted heroes, just people dealing with real events as human beings.

Steinbeck’s grasp of the specific situations and the larger forces would make this a textbook if he didn’t populate the world with believeable characters.  There are certainly characters here who act as symbols as well as people, but with the possible exception of Casey the ex-preacher, everyone reacts like a person to the situations around them. The reality of the characters’ reactions helps make his large scale descriptions comprehensible, even as it humanizes their effects.

Despite craft that makes it appear as though Steinbeck is relaying truth to readers, he certainly has a point of view.  I believe he plays fair, explaining comprehensible and even sympathetic motivations for even the least likeable characters.  Still, he is on the side of government help for people in trouble and for those people banding together to help themselves at the expense of farm owners and financiers.

Personally, I am sympathetic to that position, but even if you aren’t Grapes is a vivid, thoughtful description of a trying time in America.  Themes and situations in here apply today as well as they did in the 30s.

Strongly recommended.

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