Chirst. This was a tough one to read.
I don’t just mean it was depressing. It was, obviously – a book about a poor family being forced from their home during the Great Depression and having to beg for the chance to pick cotton at fifteen cents per hour can’t be anything except depressing – but it wasn’t the most depressing book I’ve ever read. That honor probably goes to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, although I guess Angela’s Ashes is a close second.
This wasn’t hard to read because it was a portrayal of a horrible period of history that actually happened. That contributed to the tragedy of the book, of course, coupled with the knowledge that there were not just a few Joad families during the Great Depression, but millions of them, so your percentage of possible happy endings is going to be pretty low.
It wasn’t even sad because Steinbeck was using the backdrop of the Great Depression to illustrate the greater problems in America – the disparity between rich and poor, the way low-level laborers have to fight tooth and nail to achieve the most basic human rights, the fact that the people who run the major banks and farms are horrible unfeeling shells of human beings, etc.
The Grapes of Wrath is sad for all of these reasons, but here is what makes it sadder than anything: not the fact that Steinbeck is writing about a horrible period in history that’s behind us now. It’s because that horrible period went away, and then it came back. We aren’t in the middle of a second Dust Bowl, but make no mistake: we are living in the second Great Depression.
If you haven’t read yet and have always been meaning to, there’s no better time than now. Steinbeck’s book was written in the late 1930’s, but just about everything that happens here is happening right in your state – possibly in your neighborhood – as you read this. You read about the banks in the Great Depression sending men to bulldoze people’s houses while the family stood outside, and find yourself thinking, “Well, at least now they just pile all your stuff on the curb after you get foreclosed on.” You read about migrant families accepting offers to work all day at pitiful wages, because fifteen cents an hour is still better than zero cents an hour and the kids have to eat, and you think about the McDonalds employees who ask to be paid higher than minimum wage and hear “well why don’t you just quit and get a better job?” in responsee. You read about the Joad family and the others being called “Okies” and forced out of their camps by the cops, and think about politicians who scream about “illegals” taking away the good American jobs and then deport the parents of immigrant kids.
Is this review getting too politcally-minded? Good. That’s how Steinbeck would have wanted me to talk about his book, because let me assure you – The Grapes of Wrath is extremely fucking political. Another reviewer called it the anti-Atlas Shrugged, which is pretty damn apt. It’s all about unions and the rights of the worker and how poor people need government assistance because sometimes life just sucks for no fucking reason.
It’s sad and it’s searing, and beautifully written, and unrelentingly depressing. But it should be read.
(the only reason this gets four stars instead of five is because of the ending. Look, I know that Steinbeck didn’t have to give the Joads a happy ending, and I’m not saying he gave them a sad one either – he gave them a weird one instead. I won’t give away spoilers, but the ending deals with the oldest Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon (in addition to this fantastic name, the family’s accent means that whenever her name is spoken in dialogue, Steinbeck writes it “Rosasharn.”). Again, not giving away spoilers, but I was annoyed throughout the book that she’s defined by the fact that she’s pregnant – her pregnancy, in fact, gives her some kind of ethereal wisdom, which Steinbeck tells us no less than ten times in the narrative, and it’s that bullshit Magical Pregnancy TV trope all over again. The ending is just the cherry on top of a shit subplot sundae, and it annoyed me to no end. Everything else was amazing, though.
Verdict: four out of five stars