Review of 'The Grapes of Wrath'

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

It is the great depression and in rural Oklahoma the Joad family, tenant farmers, have been driven from the plot of land they have worked for years. Son Tom has been released from prison on parole is joined by Casy, an ex-preacher who has lost his faith, as they go in search of his family. Eventually they are found at Uncle John's loading their possessions into an overloaded Hudson sedan that has been converted into a truck. With the combined effects of eviction from the land, and the dust bowl the family have had to default on their loans so are forced to move out. Hearing news of work in California the family, joined by Casy and John, make their way to Route 66 and begin the long slow journey west joining thousands of others in the same position. On the way they face starvation, death and news that things might not be all that great in California either where the “Okies”, as similar travellers are called, are treated with hatred and contempt…

This is not exactly a heart-warming novel filled as it is with tragedy, despair and desperation. It is fair to say that not all of the principal characters make it to the end of the novel and just when you think it can't get any worse in one chapter, the next chapter tops it. The family is in a no-win situation and that despite their dreaming they are doomed to suffer massive heartbreak and loss.

Being largely ignorant of this part of history this novel was enlightening in many ways with chapters alternating between short essays providing background material and the story of the Joads. In Grapes Steinbeck returns to his economic theories including the deep suspicion of “communist” activities of the time such as unions which here are portrayed in a positive light as a collective provides the Joads with one of the view incidents of compassion in the novel. Here he makes it clear the land-owners who seek to exploit the workers are the ones at fault though, to be fair, there is an attempt to explain this by providing history on how the owners came to be in their situation. At the end of the day the system the Joads find themselves beholden to is the agent of their misfortune starting at the very beginning of the novel as they are kicked off the land by corporate greed in the guise of large landowners attempting to simply survive. While concentrating on the plight of the Joads Steinbeck does seem to be at pains to explain the forces that are acting on them and how everyone is acting in their own best interests at the loss of their humanity.

A difficult but enlightening read about a tragic time in American history.

Rating: “It is OK but I have some issues”

Review Date: 2021-01-31

Genre: Classic

Publication Date: 1939

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