WiscJennyAnn's Reviews > The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
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Mar 09, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction, classics, travel, book-club
Read from March 03 to 29, 2010 — I own a copy , read count: 1

Reading for the Amsterdam Waterstone's April book club. Perhaps I never would have cracked this book if it hadn't been for the club. I guess any excuse is a good excuse, eh?

*Sort-of Spoilers Ahead... (a couple plot points and some talk about the ending)*

Wauw, really amazing. I felt like I was transported back to high school when I picked up this book-- "oh man, it's so thick, I'm never gonna finish this." But as soon as I met Tom Joad in Chapter 2 I was hooked. I'm not sure there's much to say that hasn't already been said about this book, but a couple of things that struck me...

First off, I'm so thankful that I lived and traveled in California and drove across the southwest and Midwest before reading this book. The settings really came alive for me-- particularly the flat, dry Midwestern landscape in summer and the lush California growing-valleys. What a devastation it must have been to cross those mountains, from the desert and drought-stricken land to the east, see the rich, green valley and then learn that you can have no part of it.

Glancing over some reviews, a lot of people say that they *LOVE* the "in-between" chapters, rather than the narrative chapters about the Joads. While I found some of them to be illuminating about context, I often found them to be a bit distracting. The style in the two sets of chapters was just so different-- it was like reading two books at once.

BUT, somewhat tangentially I discovered in these "in-between" chapters that Jeffrey Eugenides totally cribbed from Steinbeck in parts of Middlesex... I guess imitation is the highest form of flattery. It was great to read these two novels (nearly) side-by-side.

At any rate, the effect in the "in-between" chapters was both pleasing and distracting, so I'm left mixed about them. Really I was pulled forward through the book by the Joad's tale, not the scenery. Although I wonder if the Joad's tale would have been so driving if it weren't for these "in-between" chapters? Sometimes they seemed like writing exercises to keep the author interested or invested in the Joad's epic-- might they have the same effect on the reader? And when things looked their bleakest, maybe it was nice to pull back, admire the scenery for a moment before returning to the struggle.

For me the book reached it's climax in Chapter 29-- with all the talk in the preceding chapters about how things have to change, Chapter 29 is the final declaration of the anger, frustration, helplessness and the ripening of wrath within the migrant workers... and then, nothing. The fruit metaphor was appropriate as one can just imagine fruit becoming overripe and heavy, falling helplessly from the trees or vines, all of that promise only to rot on the ground. But wait a minute...? Where is the wrath?? The ending just plodded a long as with the rest of the book-- the Joads go on surviving, the power to react against the system still out of reach for the individual, people still banding together to help each other in passive ways and in every day life. But not in work and not in active struggle. Steinbeck's picture of humanity is so bleak... The book speaks to so much that I see around me in the world-- the haves oppression of the have-nots, out of fear of an end of their way of life; a moment-to-moment struggle for survival within the system; daily tragedies of death, sickness and starvation. But where is the breaking point? History is littered with them! But maybe Steinbeck believes that we've reached the end of breaking points-- stratification is so embedded now, dividing labor from the means of production (Steinbeck has clearly read his Marx and Engels), that the system will never change. No matter how often the characters say "a change is coming," it's not. It doesn't have to. And the migrants from Oklahoma are simply replaced with immigrants from abroad.

The ending. Ah, the ending. It seemed gratuitous, simply employed for shock value or perhaps a conscious choice not to have things change, but rather to keep them the same... even more so. Again, the Joads, at the moment of their own despair, are generous with their fellow down-trodden. At this moment, we see the Joads as both the epitome of humanity and inhumanity. But Even still, it felt like gimmick.

Finally, I read one review that argued that this is a must read book for anyone over 30-- that younger cohorts (particularly, high-school and middle-school students who would likely be assigned this book) could never fully appreciate the themes and complexities of the novel. Fully digesting the book requires some life experience. I both agree and disagree. If I had been assigned this book in high school I most certainly would have picked up a copy of the Cliff Notes. Reading for me was simply one of a million things demanding my time and on which I would be tested later. I am thankful that I came to this book later in life, after discovering the joy of slowly discovering and digesting a book.

That said, I think part of the genius of this book is that the main character is a family, not an individual. Although we meet Tom Joad first, we get to know each member of the family in turn. In any one chapter, the story drifts across each character: we enter a conversation with Tom and leave it with Al, who then decides to go out looking for girls; we follow him for a moment, then return to the camp, where Ma is watching him go; she then turns to Rose of Sharon and they discuss Connie... This style allows the reader the freedom to identify with any of the characters-- each with a different perspective, style and strategy for coping with the family's struggle. Although I (at 30) find Rose of Sharon to be intolerable, I might have truly identified with her at 16. If I were a man of 18 or of 40, I might have identified with Al or Pa. If I had read this book 15 years ago or waited another 15 years to read it, it would have been a completely different experience. And which ever character you identify with, the themes of struggle, family, loss, hope and enduring humanity come through.

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Reading Progress

03/12/2010 page 104
22.86% ""Don't roust your faith bird-high an' you won't do no crawlin' with the worms.""
03/20/2010 page 197
43.3% ""So goddamn sassy," Pa murmured. "An' she ain't young, neither.""
03/25/2010 page 372
81.76% "Skitters."
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