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274 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1936
‘I want to see the whole picture - as nearly as I can. I don’t want to put on the blinders of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and limit my vision. If I used the term ‘good’ on a thing I’d lose my license to inspect it, because there might be bad in it. Don’t you see? I want to be able to look at the whole thing.’
I don’t like communists either. I mean I dislike them as people. I rather imagine the apostles had the same waspish qualities and the New Testament is proof that they had equally bad manners.The plot of this novel - Steinbeck’s fifth - focuses on fruit growers in a fictional valley in California. Two “Party” (presumably Communist Party) activists – the seasoned campaigner Mac MacLeod and his young apprentice Jim Nolan – infiltrate a group of itinerant fruit pickers with the intention of provoking a strike and violent confrontation with the growers. From the beginning Mac is aware that the strategy is doomed to failure because of the superior resources of the growers. However, he doesn’t hesitate to manipulate the fruit pickers and to use whatever means at his disposal to achieve the Party’s objectives.
"Well, why do you want to join, then?"
Jim's grey eyes half closed in perplexity. At last he said, "In the jail there were some Party men. They talked to me. Everything's been a mess, all my life. Their lives weren't messes. They were working toward something. I want to work toward something. I feel dead. I thought I might get alive again."
"Well, you say I don't believe in the cause. That's like not believing in the moon. There've been communes before, and there will be again. But you people have an idea that if you can establish the thing, the job'll be done. Nothing stops, Mac. If you were able to put an idea into effect tomorrow, it would start changing right away. Establish a commune, and the same gradual flux will continue."
"There aren't any beginnings. Nor any ends. It seems to me that man has engaged in a blind and fearful struggle out of a post he can't remember, into a future he can't force nor understand. And man has met and defeated every obstacle, every enemy except one. He cannot win over himself. How mankind hates itself."Fighting for the good is a heroic aim, but what good is can never be determined for sure. While Steinbeck's positioning is clear, he's not failing to question his beliefs. Voiced through the character of Jim, there are various situations in which he questions what he's doing, wondering what the ultimate aim of it all is. It is easy to be sucked into a group and become part of a dynamic, becoming blind for the failings that an individual might have picked up on. There are also questions of how well a sharing of wealth would actually work in practice. It's the common criticism of communistic ideas, but very valid nonetheless.
"He had fat, comfortable white arms, bare to the elbows. He carried a damp cloth with which he wiped and wiped at the counter, with little circular movements. His manner of learning close when he spoke made every speech seem secret."And here we are, three sentences later and I can feel and see this guy. It's little things like that, which made this heavy and tragic story really come alive. It's definitely one to point towards for anyone who cares about Steinbeck's work or ideas!