Several members of our book club watched Ken Burns’ now famous documentary on the Dust Bowl and wanted to read more about it. We weren’t really familiar with that part of American history and wanted to learn more. Of the several books suggested, we decided to go with the old classic, “The Grapes of Wrath”.
The first question to be discussed was the title of the book. What exactly did it mean? One suggestion was that grapes were one of the fruits mentioned in the book that would be picked by the migrants, and that there was great wrath at the time, both from the people that already lived in California and the migrants that were looking for work. Perhaps this was true. I had read that Steinbeck chose the titles of his books from catchy phrases in other literature. His wife suggested this phrase from the Battle Hymn of the Republic. So we tried to figure out what it originally meant in the song and couldn’t figure that one out either. Oh well.
The book is a story about the Joad family, who are kicked off their land that they had been sharecropping for many years. The Dust Bowl had made it too difficult to make money from the land. They were more or less deceived into going to California to pick crops. But there were way too many folks migrating to California and not enough work, which led to serious problems. John Steinbeck worked for a newspaper and was given the assignment to report on the migrant situation and he eventually wrote this book about it.
We all thought that the book was very well written. It would have been a very complex book to write. Each of the characters spoke in their own accent, plus their own personality. The story had to bring to light the tragedy of the times through the journey of the Joad family. Interspersed between the story chapters were chapters that painted pictures of the times. For example, there was a very interesting chapter that described the challenges of buying a vehicle at that time, and then another that told the story of the Joad’s buying a vehicle.
The book was bookended well too. There was a great little story about a tortoise at the beginning which was an allegory for the whole book, then the surprise ending which tied the whole book together. I guess I’m not going to tell the ending since that would be a spoiler, even though the book is 74 years old. You can look at the Cliff notes.
The character development was quite nice. Near the end, I was panicking because I didn’t see how we were going to learn about the fates of some of the characters. However, the surprise ending in the last paragraph really pulled together the whole book. I would have liked knowing what happened to Noah and Connie and Muley but we’re left deciding that on our own. They were simply an allegory for the times.
Noah was one of the Joad boys who had some sort of mental problem which Pa Joad thought was his fault for having botched up the birth. He squished his head out of shape and then squished it back into shape. He never told anyone, but always felt responsible. During the trip to California, he left the family and headed down the river. He told them that he could survive better on his own because there was plenty of fish in the river. I think his character symbolizes the difficulty and unfairness of the time and how some people struck out on their own to be less of a burden on their families.
Connie was Rose of Sharon’s husband who left her during the trip even though she was pregnant. I think he symbolizes the fact that it wasn’t just the bankers and landowners that were slimeballs, but also some of the migrants. Each group of people had their own numbers of good and bad people, just that the goodness and badness gets exaggerated when times are tough.
Muley was from a different family that headed to California. He decided to stay in Oklahoma and live off the land. He represented the fact that a lot of people are a part of the land and can’t just leave.
There is lots of other symbolism in the book as well. In the beginning, Tom Joad picks up a tortoise to give to his little brother as a present. He walks a fair distance with the tortoise before deciding that it wasn’t a good idea and then lets it go. The tortoise story basically sums up the whole book. It was struggling to get along in the first place, then is removed from its home territory and plopped somewhere else. No thought at all is given to the fact that this individual doesn’t know the new territory, doesn’t know where to find food or shelter or anything.
This book gave few statistics about the Dust Bowl, but gave a very detailed description of the people that were most affected by it. It really shows what can happen when the population of an area exceeds its carrying capacity, or in this case the Dust Bowl caused the carrying capacity to drop dramatically after the people were already there. Some people will lose out, and it was mostly the people that lived on the land.
John Steinbeck got a Pulitzer for this book. He eventually won a Nobel Prize for literature. I can certainly see why he got the Pulitzer. I’d like to read more of his books to see why he got the Nobel Prize.