The Grapes of Wrath (1939) – John STEINBECK

So, uni holidays are upon us, and this has been sitting on my shelf staring at me for ages. What better way to spend one’s time than by reading a piece of literature that is widely considered one of the greatest American books ever? Though the last American classic I read, Moby-Dick, was really not that good. So I didn’t come into this book with high expectations. Which, it turns out, was probably the best thing. Oh, and it hasn’t taken me three weeks to read – I just haven’t had access to the internet.

The Grapes of Wrath introduces us to Tom Joad, recently out of prison, and returning to his family home after several years away. Picking a preacher up on the way, he soon discovers that the family are moving west – their land is worth nothing, and they feel that they will be better served in the promised land of California. Along with millions of others, they begin their journey to a better life.

On the surface, the plot of The Grapes of Wrath is not that exciting. But, it is an insanely excellent book. Steinbeck is such a genius writer, that I think I could read a novel from him about paper bags that would still be exciting, gripping, and brilliantly written. Seriously, this guy writes like a poet, but in prose form. And I haven’t read it for two weeks, but if I could remember any of it, I would give it to you. My bad.

Steinbeck was very clever when he chose his characters, trying to find a unique point of view that would present a cross-section to be explored in the face of the Depression. Read this book over any history of the Depression to get a glimpse into real life. Mama’s arc in particular is a nice touch for an early sense of feminist uprising, and the inability of men to act in the face of imminent collapse, with the woman coming through to save the day. Several times. Similarly, Jim Casy, the preacher, and his disillusionment with God and the Church is a fantastic look at the effect this massive world event (the Great Depression) has on faith.

It’s not even the characters that make this book, though the Joad family is very nicely done. It is the alternate chapters of the book, which comprise a more holistic telling of the Depression, taking the action away from the trials of the Joads, and instead looking at other people, who sometimes turn out to be the Joads. Sometimes, this is just an excuse for Steinbeck to show off, but that’s ok, because he is very good at it. And this clearly works well – regular readers will remember that James Frey riffs off this in Bright Shiny Lights, in which a similar construction gives us the history of Los Angeles.

The Nobel Prize for Literature is an impressive award. To receive it, you have to make some kind of impressive contribution to humanity. When John Steinbeck won the Nobel in 1962, he won it for “his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception.” And that pretty much sums up this book. Don’t let the Nobel tag scare you off – this is one of the most accessible classics, and certainly one of the most brilliant.

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