Book Review – The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath is one of those classic Steinbeck novels that we all should’ve read at one point or another.  I’m sure it must’ve been assigned to me at some point in my high school years but, until this week, I’d never read it.  Honestly, it likely would’ve remained unread by me forever if I hadn’t been “shamed” into reading it by my older brother.
How can someone “shame” you into reading something, you ask?  Well, it’s quite simple, actually.  The Grapes of Wrath is the story of my people; it’s the story of my family’s heritage.  No, my last name isn’t Joad and I’m fully aware that Steinbeck’s novel is a work of fiction; but it’s a work of fiction that has been well-researched to provide historical accuracy to the subject.  In short, The Grapes of Wrath is about the Oklahoma people and, as a native of the Sooner State, I come from a long line of Oklahomans…”Okies,” if you will.
For those of you who’ve read this book, you may find it interesting – maybe even disconcerting – that I’ve chosen to refer to myself as an “Okie.”  After all, Steinbeck uses the term as a derogatory depiction of the homeless masses.  It’s used in the same hateful context as many similar words have been used throughout time to degrade and humiliate people of color, or families from Mexico…Italy…Ireland…Poland…The American Indian.  Each in their own time has had derogatory names assigned to their people, and “Okie” was the hateful word used to depict the migrant Oklahomans during the 1930s.  But I take pride in that name.  I take pride because – to me – the word “Okie” means kindness, selflessness, determination and resiliency; and I feel that Steinbeck did a beautiful job of showing those Oklahoma qualities in the Joad family.
Route 66 – the main road
leading out of Oklahoma
and into California in the 1930s

For those of you who haven’t read it, The Grapes of Wrath is an epic novel depicting the mass migration of Oklahomans (and neighboring states) to California during The Great Depression of the 1930s and the simultaneous Dust Bowl of Oklahoma.  It was a time when the overuse of the land turned the once fertile farming soil into dust, making it unfit for the growing of crops.  With no money coming in from the crops, banks swooped in and called in loans on the land, and forced tenant-farmers and their families out of the homes they’d known for generations.  The result was mass homelessness that led to a great migration to California in search of jobs.

My own father was born during this period in 1931 and, when he was only four, his father passed away and left his mother a widow with nearly a dozen children to support on her own.  Like so many, she lost the family’s farm and had to seek new options to support her large family.  Probably due to a lack of financial means, she did not look to the West for better opportunities.  Instead, she took odd jobs and put her older children to work, while fostering her younger children out to other family members and friends in order to survive.  Her grown stepchildren and their spouses, however, did follow the migration to California where that branch of our family (the “California bunch”) lived until their deaths.  Their descendants – my 1st cousins and their families – still live there today.  So when I say that The Grapes of Wrath is the story of my family, it’s not much of an exaggeration and, maybe because of that, I loved every word of this story.
When I mentioned to fellow readers that I was reading The Grapes of Wrath, I got a lot of negative feedback.  Most people said it was depressing or sad or “a real downer.”  To be honest, that’s not at all what I got out of the book.  I found it to be a book of hope and a testament to the strength of the human spirit.  Yes, it was difficult to read about the hundreds of thousands of starving migrant people; and it was even more difficult to come to terms with the fact that “this really happened!”  But what I really got from the story was a lesson in discrimination and racism, and hope for the future of mankind.  You see, even when all had been taken from them and there seemed to be no real hope in the foreseeable future, the Okies refused to just lay down and die.  They refused to let the “big guy” get the best of them.  They trudged on through death, hopelessness, starvation and despair.  They did their best to keep their families together, and they never failed to lend a helping hand to one whose need was even greater than their own.  Nearly 100 years later, the majority of Oklahomans still possess those admirable qualities.  
John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s writing style is deeply descriptive, and yet not a single word feels superfluous.  He writes so that the reader can taste the sand and dust in his mouth as the black clouds of the dust storms raged across the plains of Oklahoma, and feel the hunger and despair of the characters as though it were his own.  The Grapes of Wrath is not only a truly absorbing novel, but a surprisingly great read in every way.

Over the years, there has been much controversy over Steinbeck’s depiction of the migrant Oklahomans.  Some wish to dismiss the story outright because the opening scenes of the book are set in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, which was much less affected by the Dust Bowl than other parts of the state.  Others are angered by the suggestion that Oklahomans were ignorant “bumpkins” and that Steinbeck’s description of the people was an embarrassment to Oklahoma.  But there is no doubt that the dust bowl did happen and that it was the less-educated Oklahoma tenant-farmers who were forced off of their lands, causing many to migrate West.  To me – an Okie by birth and by blood and proud of it – the point of the book is not so much that the whole of the story be absolutely true, but that the combined parts are correct.  With that in mind, then, I think Steinbeck has written a beautiful tribute that shows the inner strength and courage of Oklahomans as a whole.  For this reason, The Grapes of Wrath is easily one of the best novels I’ve read in the last ten years, and one I would strongly suggest to those who wish to know a little more about our nation’s history.  
This book is available at the library in traditional, e-book and audio format.  It is also available on DVD, though I would caution readers that the book is much better than the dramatized version.

For more information on this book, visit the NewsOK website dedicated to the 70th anniversary of Steinbeck’s novel at this link.  You can also see a slideshow of photographs taken during this era as dust covered the land by visiting the NewsOK photo gallery by following this link.

~ Catherine H. Armstrong

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