Moody's Reviews > The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
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Apr 16, 09

Read in March, 2009

** spoiler alert ** Usually I read selfishly. To learn. For my erudition. To indulge. For my entertainment. The Grapes of Wrath was different. It’s an important book, not just for me but for everybody. I’m glad this constructed universe of human experience is out there, waiting in the stacks, housed in this brick of ink and pulp. And that children are made to read it. The book shifted something inside me.

When I started, I thought I might give it a poor rating to harass my friend, but I quickly realized that would have been…well…sacrilegious. It’s a special thing, this work. It’s fantastic and it’s special.

I’ll often take notes of the things I like when I read a book. But sometimes I’ll get too wrapped up or there’s simply too much to transcribe, and you let the story be, let it flow uninterrupted. The writing simply demands it.

I took some notes at first. I recognized the quality of the craft, but the story didn’t really get into my skin those first few chapters. I thought, “Do I really want to spend 600 pages reading about a shit-kicking ex-con and a sexually deviant preacher?” Turns out I did.

Here are the two passages I copied down:

“Her full face was not soft; it was controlled kindness. Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm of super human understanding.”

“Grandma and Grandpa raced each other to get across the broad yard. They fought over everything and needed the fighting.”

After page 142, I stopped doing it. I couldn’t be bothered to break from the story.
You can feel the rising tide of it as you read. Something happened to Steinbeck, and he broke out on a tear that was positively evangelical. He writes with the hysteria of epiphany, and you get sucked up into his revelation. I read the last 300 pages in a single sitting, my new DVDs and a half-read Stephen King completely neglected. All of Sunday night and the earliest part of Monday morning.

And the change from my first impressions? It turns out it’s me. I’m the asshole at the party. I’m the asshole.

I remember some grade school impressions of the Dust Bowl, those Dorothea Lange images and vague stories of women waking up in the morning with a thin coat of dust on their faces. And then more recently, the Carnivale series gave some dimension to that period in my mind. But this is the book that distills down that chapter in our history. The story has been told. It’s done.

You get simple, noble truth through these simple noble people. He gives the Okies sagacity without making it seem too forced. It’s a tremendous feat.

And he makes you live their lives, puts you right there with them. In that ditch, in that rain. He makes you feel it. All that dust, he puts it up under your fingernails. In the proud, corroded huts, eating grease. Dying slowly.

The last scene is a piece of magic. Unholy and tragic and beautiful.

I will note that I had some issues with Grapes, especially with the opening chapters.

For example, in a span of three pages:

“The dust from the roads fluffed up and spread out and fell on the weeds beside the fields, and fell into the fields a little way. Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields. Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind fell over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away. The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and …”

“They knew it would take a long time for the dust to settle out of the air. In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth. It settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.”

“As the day went forward the sun became less red. It flared down on the dust-blanketed land. The men sat in the doorways of their houses; their hands were busy with sticks and little rocks. The men sat still-thinking-figuring.”

It’s strong writing, but I got overdusted early on. Ten pages in, and I’m depressed already. WTF Stein? And Grandpa scratching his balls didn’t add a whole lot for me. It felt honest, sure, but maybe too honest? Three weeks into Grapes he wrote in his diary:

“If I could do this book properly it would be one of the really fine books and a truly American book. but I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. I’ll just have to work from a background of these. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty it is all I can expect of my poor brain…If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time.”

I think he got what he was looking for.

Later on he wrote:
“I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied…I tried to write this book the way lives are being lived not the way books are written…Throughout I’ve tried to make the reader participate in the actuality, what he takes from it will be scaled entirely on his own depth or hollowness. There are five layers in this book, a reader will find as many as he can and he won’t find more than he has in himself.”

This is about right. Turns out, I could only find four layers. It seems I forgot about John Steinbeck’s personal journey in creating the book. In my defense, I’m a selfish reader.
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Meghan Pinson oooohhhhhh.


Meghan Pinson wonderful.


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