John Steinbeck - The Grapes of Wrath - Book Review - Cole D. Lehman
Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize winning classic is one of those books society said I should read which I avoided for that exact reason. Maybe it would have done me some good in my earlier life, but there's no way I would have been able to appreciate its depth. Well, The Grapes of Wrath found me recently and it is one of the most powerful, well-written stories I've ever read.
Tom Joad returns to his family to find them abandoning their farmland and home, preparing to head to California to find work and build a new life. The whole countryside is being emptied out—the Joads are one of the last families left. Like everyone else, a few years of bad weather and crops forced them to become tenants on their own land by borrowing money from the banks and they can't pay up. The banks want profit, and the tractors, the machines are profitable—families are not.
"We know that—all that. It's not us, it's the bank. A bank isn't like a man. or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn't like a man either. That's the monster.
Sure, cried the tenant men, but it's our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it's no good, it's still ours. That's what makes it ours—being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.
We're sorry. It's not us. It's the monster. The bank isn't like a man.
Yes, but the bank is only made of men.
No you're wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it."
The owners don't want to kick the families off, but they have no choice. That's the way of the world now.
Steinbeck creates texture throughout this book that lays society bare in all of its contradictions. Especially revealing to me was the men who were being kicked off the land using the example of their fathers and grandfathers killing Native Americans to claim it as a reason why they had rights to it...
As it was masterfully foreshadowed, the Joads cross the unforgiving desert only to find a California that is hostile to their existence. Not the abundant dream that had driven them. Steinbeck uses their trials in California to explore economic absurdities, workers' rights, and what happens to people when society is forced to evolve at the pace of the almighty dollar.
A brutally honest and poignant descriptions of events, Steinbeck doesn't pull any punches. It's no surprise that he was widely criticized for his expression. People don't enjoy looking at themselves so closely for fear of what it reveals about our collective nature and values.
This book is a hard-line into the human experience. A look at the society we've created and what happens to people when the momentum shifts.
Loved ones go mad, starve, die, and walk off into the wilderness never to return; and yet, there are bright lights that shine through. Selfless kindness to strangers on the road who are made family by circumstance. The joy and stability found in the simple act of making breakfast every morning when the entire world is crumbling.
If you have any interest in the human condition, The Grapes of Wrath is a book that demands to be read—again and again.
Ultimately, this book found its way to me through this Bruce Springsteen cover by Junip. It contains part of what Tom Joad says to his mother when they finally part ways and it's a wonderful song.
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