When I was young, my grandfather gave me a copy of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and said every self-respecting Oklahoman should read the novel. Since I did just about everything he said, I read the book. But that was a very long time ago, and while I always considered it an an amazing book, I forgot much about it.
For that reason, I was thrilled Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, was the first book in the #yearofsteinbeck buddy read hosted on Instagram. In the book, set during the Great Depression, the Joad family, long-time tenant farmers in Oklahoma, packs all their belongings that will fit onto a jalopy, burning or abandoning the rest. They‘ve literally tractored off their land, forcing them out of the only livelihood they’ve ever known. However, with handbills from fruit growers in California advertising for jobs, they are optimistic that as soon as they make the journey across Route 66, they will no longer face poverty and hunger.
Steinbeck weaves intercalary chapters throughout the novel that serve as short stories, offer foreshadowing, and provide context for the Joads’s journey as they join almost 500,000 other refugees fleeing drought and despair for for the elysian California.
With stark but beautiful language and powerful symbolism, Steinbeck imparts the harrowing reality of the migrant “Okies,” yet he also imparts the strength that comes from family and community ties, emphasizing the humanity and empathy of the poor while criticizing the heartless cruelty of those who are disenfranchised from the land and the laborers.
Despite all the tragedy in The Grapes of Wrath, the novel closes on an optimistic note of largesse. However, I find it lamentable that the issues explored by Steinbeck are still so prevalent, albeit with different migrant groups replacing the Okies. Our society can and should do better. I encourage others to read it: the book remains timely, relevant, and brilliant.