driving home today i realized that i've not yet felt true hunger, true desperation, or true poverty. i learn of these tragedies through reading or testimony, relying on others' suffering for my information. the grapes of wrath is my most recent informer. i purchased it as a whim, as one of those "great American classics" everyone should read. the back cover touts it as "a book that galvanized - and sometimes outraged - millions of readers." it has certainly outraged me just as surely as it has disheartened me. it is truly an amazing tribute to humanity's soul, both its illustrious and its deranged dimensions.
steinbeck's protagonists are the Joad family, Oklahoma natives that
travel westward to California once they've been removed from their land
by the bank. handbills call amd they each begin to cast their
respective dreams - a small white house, a job in a garage, a
correspondence course, babies, family, and land. for this family
and thousands others land is their end-all and be-all; it is their way
of life. the obvious antagonist in this epic tale about the Great
Depression is corporate power. sly and avarice, it mechanizes
agriculture and distances itself from community.
it is in the midst of recounting the Joad's struggles that steinbeck
becomes pedantic and captivating. these are the chapters of
the universal struggle - the situations and discriminations that most
families encountered during the Depression: the rhythm of the writing
slows, the use of one-dimensional and flat writing increases, and the
reader the is left with a painfully clear vision. as the chapter
closes, you find yourself anxious and silently praying: what will
happen to the Joads? Will they share these pains? Will they find
a way to sidestep them? Are they one of the few lucky ones?
steinbeck senses the reader's nail-biting and delivers a storyline that
falls just inside the line of the common but with just enough wiggle
room to have sidestepped the worst. it's the closing scene of the
book that's the clincher:
"Ma's eyes passed Rose of Sharon's eyes, and then came back to
them. And the two women looked deep into each other. The
girl's breath came short and gasping.
She said 'Yes.'
Ma smiled. "I knowed you would. I knowed!" She looked down at her hands, tight-locked in her lap.
Rose of Sharon whispered, "Will-will you all-go out?" The rain whisked lightly on the roof."
i encourage you to read more for both the context and the conclusion. it's shocking and it's amazing.
this is a tale of the disintegration of family, the cruel deprivation
found in poverty, the lust for profit at the cost of social justice,
and the incredible charity that springs from a humanity that knows, has
felt and experienced, hunger. it begs the question of whether
government policy and corporations have really changed since the 1920s.
Ultimately, i fear neither have. we continue to oppress our neighbors
despite the number of years they've dwelt among us and despite our own
knowledge of the oppression. it's just become more complex, more latent
in the time since. poverty, hunger, homelessness are swallowed and
accepted by a determined blindness of society; oppressive measures and
policies have become more cruel and legalistic, ingrained in tax
structures, public funding, and social welfare policy; and, perhaps
more poignantly, we, as community members, allow ourselves to ignore
the injustice that occurs right outside our doors. these ruminations
and this book have illimunated a fact i've felt but forgotten - that
money, ownership, and possession isolates the individual, stripping him
or her of empathy, blinding him or her to the needs of others, and
encasing him or her in a impoverished spirit of self-righteousness,
indignation, and self-congratulations for a job well done.