Based on real life events of the Dust Bowl during the 1930′s Depression, this classic American novel was an instant best seller, with about 450,000 copies sold in the first year. It also won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into an Academy Award-winning movie the year after publication. The novel was banned, it was burned, and it was decried and discussed on the radio, in the pulpit, and in the streets. But, above all, it was read. The Nobel Prize committee cited The Grapes of Wrath a “great work” and as one of the committee’s main reasons for granting the prize to Steinbeck in 1962.
In it, we’re introduced to Tom Joad, the eldest son of the family, who has just been released from prison for killing a man in a fight. While walking home he meets traveling preacher Jim Casy, who knew the Joad family years ago. The two men return to the Joad farm and home, only to find it deserted and empty. Tom finds out that the family has moved in with with his Uncle Bill not far off and when he gets there he doesn’t quite get the homecoming he expected. Instead, he discovers that his family has been forced off their Oklahoma farm by the bank and that they are planning on migrating to California – a land with plenty of jobs and plenty of food – or so the handbills proclaim.
The novel then follows the Joads, with their friend Casy, as they make the journey that so many others made across our vast country on the famed mother-road: Route 66. Steinbeck uses a literary technique of alternating chapters to great effect. Some chapters detail the progress and events in the lives of the Joads, while others provide a “slice of life” overview of different aspects of the westward journey that so many Americans made during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. For example, early in the novel one such chapter depicts the practice of buying and selling used cars and trucks from the point of view of what we now think of as a stereotypical used car salesman. He’ll do anything to move the jalopies on his lot, including all sorts of dirty tricks to make broken down and unsafe vehicles appear road-worthy, as well as outright lying to the rubes buying them. Steinbeck’s writing style is also one of main reasons I loved this book – it is rhythmic, and lyrical and has been compared by many to The Bible. There are many Biblical parallels in the plot of the story, too.
Through every trial and tribulation that the Joads face, we appreciate even more the struggles that millions of Americans endured during the Great Depression. My one small complaint about the book is it’s ending. It seemed to me (and to some members of our book club) to be vague, anti-climactic and abrupt, although some think this was done on purpose by Steinbeck. For me, the book would have had a much stronger end, if the author had just moved Tom’s “I’ll be there” speech to the end of the novel. Henry Fonda made this scene even more memorable in the movie.
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