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July 22, 2014

Book Review || The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

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The Grapes of Wrath was slow reading to start. Its lyrical prose and realism, however, took hold of me at around the middle as the Joad family's struggles became those of the starving people of the world today. By the end, the novel became one of those that you read about - one of those that made me genuinely sigh and think about the world, that made me feel disturbed.

The Joads are searching for the American dream - a dream that all too many people don't reach because of the rise of capitalism, industrialism, the glorified slavery of the minimum wage. Steinbeck has painstakingly revealed the truth of the struggling poor, and though 'The Grapes of Wrath' was written seven decades ago, the story still resounds today because of inequality, poverty, lack of food security...

Although the novel was met with critical acclaim, earning Steinbeck the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, farmers in California were displeased with the way they were represented in the novel, with perspectives such as the following being their fictional beliefs:
"Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. A human being wouldn't live like they do. A human being couldn't stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain't a hell of a lot better than gorillas."
This description of the capitalisation of the land is apt:
"Once California belonged to Mexico and its land to Mexicans; and a horde of tattered feverish Americans poured in. And such was their hunger for land that they took the land ... and they guarded with guns the land they had stolen ... The Mexicans were weak and fed. They could not resist, because they wanted nothing as frantically as the Americans wanted land. Then, with time, the squatters were no longer squatters, but owners; and their children grew up and had children on the land. And the hunger was gone from them, the feral hunger, the gnawing, tearing hunger for land, for water and earth and the good sky over it ... They had these things so completely that they did not know about them any more ... They arose in the dark no more to hear the sleepy birds' first chittering, and the morning wind around the house while they waited for the first light to out to the dear acres. These things were lost, and crops were reckoned in dollars, and land was value by principal plus interest, and crops were bought and sold before they were planted ... And all their love was thinned with money, and all their fierceness dribbled away in interest until they were no longer farmers at all ... Then those farmers who were not good shopkeepers lost their land to good shopkeepers ... And as time went on, the business men had the farms ... Now, farming became industry... They imported slaves, although they did not call them slaves... They live on rice and beans, the business men said. They don't need much. They wouldn't know what to do with good wages. Why, look how they live ... And if they get funny - deport them ... And it came about that owners no longer worked on their farms. They farmed on paper; and they forgot the land, the smell, the feel of it, and remembered only that they owned it, remembered only what they gained and lost by it ... Okies - the owners hated them because the owners knew they were soft and the Okies were strong, that they were fed and the Okies hungry; and perhaps the owners had heard from their grandfathers how easy it is to steal land from a soft man if you are fierce and hungry and armed".
And this:
"Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad... The local people whipped themselves into a mould of cruelty..."
We can see the same thing today; farms of acres of land are owned by a single man, a man who usually doesn't do the ploughing, who doesn't know the sunlight, who doesn't know the drought. There are few farm hands, because machines are the new slaves, and the farm hands that do work are paid just enough for life. In suburbia, the farm hands are McDonald's workers, waiters and waitresses, the slaves paid to put up with the foibles of the middle class.

But this scene is one that will remain with me all of my days - it is a scene that Steinbeck has carved in my mind, and I will never look at a beggar the same way:
...outside they could hear the children digging into the pot with their sticks and their spoons and their pieces of rusty tin. A mound of children smothered the pot from sight. They did not talk, did not fight or argue; but there was a quiet intentness in all of them, a wooden fierceness.
Have you read 'The Grapes of Wrath'?

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