lessons from Steinbeck

I wonder how many blog posts I start with “I’ve been reading [insert book title]” or something along those lines… There’s no doubt that books give me plenty of food for thought, and writing is how I digest those thoughts. Here is another such post.

This last month or two, I’ve been reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It was lent to me by a friend from work because I’d expressed interest in reading more of Steinbeck’s novels. Previously, I’d only read Of Mice and Men, and that was all the way back in high school. 

A quick blurb on the novel: It’s set in 1930s America during the Great Depression. The Joad family, along with many other families in the area, are forced off their farm in Oklahoma due to drought, dust storms, and debt, and also because tractors are bulldozing everyone off the land. They pack up everything they own and drive west to California, where there are allegedly a lot of fruit farms needing workers. TGW is the story of the Joad family, and their move to the west.

NB: I haven’t actually finished reading TGW just yet (almost finished though!) but when you gotta write, you gotta write.

It took me a while to really “get into” this book, but now I reckon this is a book that pretty much everyone should read. At least, it’s a story that everyone could benefit from knowing. I think my only reservations with recommending this book to everyone is the amount of central US (?) dialect/accent in it. Yes, the novel wouldn’t have the right feel to it if all the dialogue was written in “proper” English, but I keep worrying that the more I read TGW, the more their way of speaking will seep into my own. And, well, I suppose some readers might get frustrated at it all.

Anyway, there’s much sadness and much aching in TGW, but also a lot of strength and humanity. That’s what makes it a good novel. And, not being American, this is a story I know next to nothing about. Sure, I’ve heard about the Dust Bowl, and I know about the Great Depression, but “Dust Bowl” was just a vague concept, and the Great Depression was something I only knew about in relation to England and Australia (and even then, my knowledge leaves something wanting).

So there are some important history lessons here, and I reckon history has a lot of important stuff to teach us – not just dates and events and facts, but it can teach us about life and ways of thinking.

Let’s look at an example.

The Joad family consists of twelve people (if I’ve counted them correctly). When forced to move, the only way they can manage/afford it, is to load what they can into some kind of modified car/truck, and all pile into it themselves. All twelve of them, plus ex-Revd Casy. They all get in this truck and set off early one day, and they don’t have GPS or even a simple map, and they don’t know what they’re going to encounter. They don’t know if they’ll make it to California, or if their truck will fall to pieces halfway there.

I know people who have moved out of town, moved interstate or overseas. There’s enough uncertainty as it is, but think how much easier everything is for us now. Look at the progress! We can calculate precisely how long it will take to drive all the way across the country. Can’t fit everything in your vehicle? Send it with a courier. If you’re tired, you can stop along the way, book an Air BnB, and continue on when you’re ready. If your car breaks down, call Roadside Assistance, and you’ll be back on the road in no time.

When I was reading this part of The Grapes of Wrath, when the Joads were setting off west, camping on roadsides and beside rivers as the situation required, I was struck by sadness but also by awe at their resilience and determination. Just have to put one foot in front of the other, as Tom Joad said (although not in those words), no use worrying about what’s beyond the horizon till you get there.

I started thinking about whether or not I could do it too – pack up my belongings and drive to an uncertain location, an uncertain future. Would I hesitate? Would I falter? Would I be able to fit everything I wanted into my car? Could I leave everything behind?

But it’s sort of like that question people ask sometimes, about the things you’d save in a fire. Thinking about that question, I realise that it’s very possible to start over from very little. No need to be afraid. You don’t even have to camp in a ditch by the side of the highway, sheltered by nothing but a tarpaulin.

Where I’m up to in the story, the Joads have just entered a government camp in California. They’ve learnt about the tactics of the employers and contractors, and how there’s a vast oversupply of workers from the mass migration out of the Dust Bowl. It’s still hard to get work, and their future is still uncertain. And they left their home for this?

And another thing: TGW highlights the generosity of strangers, particularly those who suffer the same thing or suffer together. I don’t know how true this is, but, in the novel at least, when a baby died in one migrating family, all the other migrating families gave money to the grieving family so that they could give the baby a decent funeral. This wasn’t money that the other families could spare, but to them it was the right thing to do.

And when Ma Joad realised the little crowd of children watching her cook stew were watching her because they hadn’t eaten all day – what else was she to do? There wasn’t enough to feed her family, but she left some stew in the pot for those children too.

Shared suffering is a powerful uniting force. (I think that’s why they say that people who work together in stressful environments or under strict managers tend to form stronger bonds.) And through everything, there’s fear and love – the two most powerful driving forces – in every character, either side of the fence.

6 thoughts on “lessons from Steinbeck

  1. I read The Grapes of Wrath in high school and I remember very little about it. Your review makes me think I need to re-read it as an adult with a little more suffering under my belt. I imagine it’d make a bigger impression on me now.

    • Yeah, I don’t think my teenage self would’ve appreciated The Grapes of Wrath very much. Quite possibly I would’ve given up on it after a few chapters. Interesting how things change. It’s the reason I want to give Catcher in the Rye another go…

    • Now I’m interested in seeing how the speech was translated into other languages…! (Not that I can read fluently in languages other than English…) If you do re-read it in English, you’ll have to let me know if it changes your view of the story and characters 🙂

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