Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Grapes of Wrath

And here's a story you can hardly believe, but it's true and it's funny, and it's beautiful.
The Grapes of Wrath (Centennial Edition)For the past week, I have been sneaking reading time to get through The Grapes of Wrath.  Unlike many high school and college students, I passed through every school (and there were many) without reading a single Steinbeck work.  It would be wrong to say I missed out.  I think the works of John Steinbeck are not meant for teenage consumption.  They are not easily understood without the context, understanding of history, and general maturation adulthood provides.   Just think about the phenomenon of Twilight sweeping the globe for the uniformed and sadly behind on their reading-level masses.  The entirety of Stephanie Meyer's work could not rival one single sentence from Steinbeck.  And his work is chock full of sentences sturdy enough to carry the full weight of his stories.  I am glad I didn't read any of his works before a couple years ago.  I needed context - Biblical and practical.  I needed empathy.  I needed patience.  Steinbeck's prose is like the gold in the hills of California, just laying in a river waiting to be discovered.  It need not be mined to be understood, it is evident upon one single read.  But it's beauty brings you back, causes you to reread passages time and again. 

There are so many great things about this book and I am sure many people have already written exhaustive volumes about each of them; but my favorites are the characterization and the structure (I have to leave out the quotes because I can't choose just a few, I could quote entire chapters!).  

On the characterization side, Steinbeck created his characters early.  He spends little time on character development before diving into plot development.  He introduces most of the characters in Chapter 8.  The reader meets the Joad family as one would meet characters in a short story:  briefly but meaty.  He fleshes out these characters through the struggles of their journey; but we feel we know exactly who they are in a mere paragraph.    My favorites are Ma and Tom.  Bound by fierce loyalty and hope, these two keep the Joad clan together.  Ma becomes the de-facto head of household through the story, while offering sage advice I feel my grandmother would have heard from her mom.  My favorite: "Don't worry yourself, Rosasharn.  Take you breath in when you need it, and let it go when you need to." 

The other great thing about Steinbeck's writing is the big picture saga forcing the main story forward.  He switches between chapters from telling the tale of the Joad's, gone to California, to a sort of prophetic chapter where he tells the reader the events that will shape the Joad's story.  The interspersed chapters are harbingers of good and of doom for the Joad's.  In them we have forewarning of impending problems and future successes.   In this way, they help the story along while being completely outside the story.   The alternate chapters shed light on the juxtaposition of the inevitability of the hard times facing the Joad's and the intense hope they have in the future.  They have "prophets" who tell them what to expect along the way, but they are not deterred from their course, bent on survival, at least and a white house, at best. 

The quote at the top of the page describes this story very well.  Steinbeck knew he had written something great by the time he was 100 pages in (he had me at the end of chapter 1).  It is at times unbelievable, funny, and beautiful; and at other times it is unbelievably funny beautiful.  No more is this shown than in the last two pages.  I will not ruin it for anybody, but are you kidding me - craziest ending ever!

Rating; 6.5 out of 7



  1. I totally agree with what you say about not foisting Steinbeck on teenagers. I was put off for years after being forcefed Mice and Men at the age of fourteen.

  2. ohmanilovedthisbook WHEW! I'm so glad you liked it. Weird ending, though, yes?

  3. I KNOW, I actually thought the ending was a little excessive for effect . . . she could have just put it in a cup. But, awesome book!

  4. Great review. I can honestly say that I've never read a work of Steinbeck that I didn't absolutely love. East of Eden is my favorite, but Grapes isn't too far behind. And then you have Of Mice and Men and The Pearl, Cannery Row and Tortilla Flats, all great social commentaries (with great characterization) on their own.

  5. I've got G. of W. sitting on my shelf watiting ot be read. I loved East of Eden and Of Mice and Men. The writing and stories are so rich. Anways, great review!

  6. Great review, I have never read Steinbeck but I want to soo much! I don't why I haven't by now. I will try and read one by the end of this year

  7. You know, I've been putting of reading this book because I thought I wouldn't like it, but this review was exquisite. I think I might put aside my trepidation and pick it up soon.

  8. Looks like the book love for this one is well-deserved around here.

    Chelle - I always have a stack of "next" books. In fact this one was on that for a couple weeks, until I took the plunge. He should really get you drawn in by the end of chapter one.

    Becky - I recommend reading East of Eden or the Grapes of Wrath (both perfect in their own ways). Up next for me is The Red Pony.

    Friande - Thanks for stopping by and for the compliment. Trepidation not necessary for this one. Pick it up!

  9. I was lucky enough to pick up a folio society edition of this book for £10 in a charity shop. Im reading east of eden next month so it'll be a little while till I get around to this one.