The Grapes of Wrath

I finally finished this book! How do I feel about it? Accomplished, for sure. Also a bit cold. The end is so abrupt and weird.
Ultimately, I have to keep in mind that East of Eden one of my favourite books. Grapes of Wrath does not compare, in my estimation. I feel that “Eden” is a far superior novel to “Grapes”, however, I do understand the novels’ place in American Literature and History.
It is assigned to be read at schools, and considered an American classic because it is a sweeping, searing view of the plight of the dislocated dustbowl farmer during the Great Depression. Steinbeck offers unflinching insight into a part of American history that gets glossed over and sort of patted on the head. “Oh, there was a tragic time when the economy fell apart, but we’re all okay now, right?” He humanizes the tragedy of an historical event, removing it from the banks and the numbers and the economic rationale that we all struggled to understand.
When we studied the Great Depression in high school, we were all as confused as the Joads about why it happened. How could there be people starving when there was food being thrown away and spoiled? How could there be so many unemployed and homeless, when it was only the banks and those who invested that should have suffered? Steinbeck doesn’t answer those questions, but he makes clear that our confusion, over a half-century later, is peanuts compared to what people were experiencing then.
Steinbeck does good to raise awareness of the pain and suffering that was felt by the accidental bystanders of this economic tragedy. His writing is amazing, clear and potent, even if I did find the whole “narrative-moralizing-narrative-moralizing” structure to be annoying.

His work is also, apparently, timeless. In a way I’m sure he never wanted it to be. Today we still have people who are suffering, without an understanding of why nor how they became casualties in the hands of a new economic disaster. The unemployment rate soars. The frustrations of the people are manifesting in different, radical, ways. People are still starving.
This really got to me – when Steinbeck describes the food being wasted. The new culture of Big Farms and the corporate nature of mass produced food. The way it was deliberately spoiled because if the people couldn’t pay for it, they couldn’t eat it.
Today, it does not seem to have changed much. Think of the massive supermarkets – Hannaford, Wegmans, Walmart, Tesco…wherever you are. Think of the massive amounts of food that get thrown away every day because they’re no longer at supermarket standard. It hasn’t necessarily gone bad, but it doesn’t look pretty anymore. So it gets thrown away. While people starve.
Ok. I can’t really keep this up. I promised not to write essays, only book reviews. Ultimately, Grapes of Wrath made me think, but I didn’t enjoy reading it. The narrative structure was stilted and slowed because of the moralizing. Characterization was weak and I wasn’t ever invested in a single person. However, the moralizing worked and it made me think. So maybe Steinbeck succeeded at his ultimate goal. Maybe. East of Eden is still the better novel, and it managed to be so while making me think about moral and economic issues.
I have now started David Copperfield by Mark Twain. (Right now I’m enjoying some of J.D. Robb’s “-In Death” books – J.D. Robb is Norah Roberts’ pseudonym for her murder/crime/detective/sci-fi romances. Maybe I’ll post a review.)
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