Friday, July 24, 2015

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Reviewed by Ambrea

Simply put, The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joad family and their desperate flight to California in the midst of the Dust Bowl.  After being forced off their land by the owner, who sold his land to the bank, who in turn sold it to a corporation—and so on and so forth—the Joads are making their way to the west coast in the hopes of a better life.

Although the novel is primarily concerned with the Joad family and their flight across the country, several chapters—I have heard them called “bridge chapters”—describe the overall experience of the families forced to flee their homes after the Great Depression began.  These “bridge chapters” not only connect the Joad family to the larger, collective experiences of these migrant people, they also introduce the reader to a more intimate portrait of suffering, terror, and desperation these people felt and experienced.

When I began reading The Grapes of Wrath, it captured my attention for one simple reason:  it kept me on the edge of my seat.  I was constantly wondering if the family would make it to California, if they would endure—if they would ever survive the journey.  On some level, this book made me wonder if happily-ever-after even exists.  It depicts some of the worst human behavior, some of the worst human suffering as people try to survive and make a better life for themselves.

Honestly, Steinbeck’s novel broke my heart—and then it came back to stomp it in the dirt.  As Steinbeck once wrote in a letter to his publisher, “I am not writing a satisfying story.  I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied.  And still one more thing—I’ve tried to write this book the way lives are lived not the way books are written.”

And Steinbeck succeeds brilliantly.

The story of the Joad family occurs during a particularly chaotic time in American history.  It’s a decade when stock markets plunged and banks went under; when dust choked nearly half the country; when war—or an eviction notice—constantly loomed on the horizon, like the dust storms of Oklahoma and Arkansas; when economic hardship became the norm and exploitation of the poor, weak, and desperate happened regularly.

In The Grapes of Wrath, people suffer.  They’re treated as less than human—and may even become less than human through the fear and loathing of others, through their own tired desperation—and they die.  In short, Steinbeck succeeded in writing a book that will “rip a reader’s nerves to rags,” but he also succeeded in creating a hallmark piece of American literature that’s sure to rattle readers and make us think.

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