Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

This is a book I feel I ought to have read before now, because it's such a classic. I have seen the wonderful film, so the story is familiar to me. It is the story of the Joad family who are forced to leave their Oklahoma farm and join the exodus to California during the Depression in the 1930s.
At first I thought I was going to struggle with it because I found it so upsetting. The unfairness of it all and the way big businesses just rode roughshod over the tenant farmers with no thought for their lives, or their history on the land, or what was going to happen to them and whether they would survive.

Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or finance company owned the land, the owner man said The Bank - or the Company - needs - wants - insists - must have - as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them.

The Joads bravely set off for California, the younger ones are excited, the older ones face the future with more trepidation. Their journey brings them into contact with others like them. They meet a man who is returning from California, he tells them there is no work, and that his children died of starvation there. But they don't want to believe him. They, like everyone else who has been driven off their land, are desperate. They have to believe there is work for them in California. They meet with kindness - usually from people as poor as themselves - and they also meet with people who are willing to trade on their vulnerability  to make a quick profit. The authorities biggest fear is that these desperate people will unite and therefore become powerful so they are harried and constantly moved on.

Of course when they get to California there is very little work and so many people that wages are driven down to below subsistence level. Some people are willing to work for food to avoid starvation. It is hard for people to keep their dignity under these circumstances but Ma Joad is determined to keep her family together and for them to keep their self respect.

The introduction (by Robert De Mott) to the Penguin edition I borrowed from the library is very interesting. Apparently Steinbeck travelled extensively in California during the Depression and saw the deprivation at first hand. So although the book is fiction it is rooted in actual events.

I ended up loving the book, though it did make me upset and angry. I think that although it is set 80 years ago, some of it is quite pertinent to today.


  1. It always makes me angry that people could be treated the way they were, and bits of it are so sad it makes me cry. It remains a favourite, and I reread it every so often.

  2. We've heard so much about the Great Depression in the last couple of years - with people almost in the Joads' situation again. I've been meaning to read this for years - like you I feel that I should have read it before now.

  3. Love Steinbeck, not read this though. Your review has made me want to read it, I'm always interested in American history. Don't know if you've read Cannery Row, but it's a wonderful novella.