The Grapes of Wrath

Well, I’m one step closer to considering myself a true Salinan. Salinasite? Salamander? Saltine? Yeah. There isn’t a term for it. But for the longest time, I felt a burning inadequacy for never having read any of John Steinbeck’s longer-than-150-page books, and now I can finally say that I’ve tackled one. And it’s The Big One.

I’m also going to admit, right off the bat, that I didn’t really enjoy reading this book. It’s tedious. Not in a Dostoevsky way, either—Dostoevsky was a wordsmith in a different kind of way, and while Crime and Punishment was exhausting, it still earned a ton of my respect in addition to making me feel superhuman after I had finished it. And that isn’t to diminish Steinbeck. I felt just as rockstarry after turning over the 619th page and SPOILER ALERT reading about Rosasharn breastfeeding a starving guy. Weird way to end a book, by the way. But the reason why I didn’t connect to this book, even though it was written by a man who grew up in my hometown and lauded it more than anyone ever will, is because I didn’t connect to the characters. That’s weird, right? Don’t most people give a crap about the Joads? Don’t most people want them to do well and come out of the Depression alive and kicking? Okay, maybe I do wish that. But I was done with them way before the book finished.

Their toils dragged on, and I know that was the point of the whole thing, but it wasn’t an entertaining read for me, and maybe that’s what I was looking for. The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t need to be entertaining, though, because it’s a raw, depressing portrayal of poverty and prejudice and perseverence in rural 1930’s America, so I still recommend it even though I wasn’t anxious to get through each chapter. At the end of the book, the only character I had grown to love was already dead, so maybe I’m just suffering from residual grief. (RIP Casy. May you preach the non-gospel to Reds everywhere.)

With respect to the 831, I will say that it’s quite moving to have the desolate images of the dust bowl in your head when you’re driving along Highway 68 from Salinas to Monterey. Thinking about how empty it used to be, how developed it’s gotten since, and yet how simple everything still looks, is something to ponder. The city, and county for that matter, are still largely dependent on the verdant lettuce fields of the Salinas Valley and the hard-working people who harvest the crops. I’d like to think that life for them has improved since the 30s, and while I’m sure they have access to more amenities than the Joads did, I can say without a doubt that they lead a tough life. The Grapes of Wrath puts this thought into very real perspective.

There are two passages that I want to point out before I end this very ambiguous review of one of the most important books ever written. I think they demonstrate Steinbeck’s lyrical prowess better than the jumpy, abbreviated (but necessary) dialogue that took over the book. One is from page 486 of my edition, and it almost made me cry with its sudden depth:

“The evening dark came down and Pa and Uncle John squatted with the heads of families out by the office. They studied the night and the future. The little manager, in his white clothes, frayed and clean, rested his elbows on the porch rail. His face was drawn and tired.”

HOW DID HE DO THAT? He describes the scene so cleanly, adding class-relation details with barely a flick of his pencil, and then comes that sentence, “They studied the night and the future.” What an incredible piece of writing. When faced with adversity like the Joads were, they were often in a limbo state between the known and the unknown, and sometimes the best way to say that is with the fewest words possible. Hemingway would have been proud.

The other bit is perhaps the most famous, from page 477:

“The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Jesus Christ. If that imagery doesn’t hit you hard, then you’re living in a fairytale. A metaphor like that can only work once and perfectly, and this is when it happened. Steinbeck, you do Salinas proud.