John Steinbeck (1902-1908) was probably the most influential American novelist of the Depression years. His novels can all be classified as social novels dealing with the economic problems of rural labour, with a streak of worship of the soil.
For many of us, our only acquaintance with the economic problems have been through social studies text books and now the entire world is going through that phase. Steinbeck’s text books help us understand some of the problems we learnt about, as well as some of the reasons for the appeal of the socialist ideal. More significantly, they help open our eyes to certain features of the world- the features we often disregard, preoccupied as we as with the Idiot Box and the Internet.
In 1939, Steinbeck published “The Grapes of Wrath” the story of Oklahoma tenant farmers who, unable to earn a living from the land, move to California where they become migratory workers.
The main character, Tom Joad gets out of jail, finds his family farm destroyed and deserted and finds his family living with his uncle. He learns that they have to leave Oklahoma, since all their lands have been captured and crops destroyed. They are wooed to go to California since they are told that it’s their “Land of Hope” and try to make a living out of it. Good part of the book about the road trip to California, all their miseries, misfortunes. They get in California to find it’s no better what they had. The heartrending, inspiring and totally overwhelming tale of human survival comes to the forefront here.
Through the book the reader accompanies typical ‘Okie’ families-the Joads and others like them who, dispossessed of their land, set forth for California which, they believe to be a ‘land of milk and honey’. Steinbeck’s style is so effective that the reader not only learns the trials and tribulations but also develops a genuine empathy with these folk.
This book is an eye opener for those of us who have heard so much of California as the Sunshine state and of America as the land of Hope and Freedom, where the citizens enjoy ‘Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness’, It takes is back to the stark Depression years when exploitation of labour was certainly as prevalent as Marx and Lenin would have us believe.
The story is not about society amd community alone. Is it about human attributes as well. While the reader comes across frailties that seem natural and understandable in the circumstances, there are also strengths,- that fill us with wonder, in the unlikeliest of quarters,- Tom Joad, the protagonist, who is willing to stand firm in the support of his beliefs, in Mrs Joad, the resilient mother, whose family is brought to the brink of disintegration, in Tom’s sister, the abandoned bride, who, though a quiet act described the end of the book, seeks to adopt purpose in a life that seems rendered purposeless.
As you finish reading this book you are left with a feeling of having been able to look as a world so different from the clichéd one we know and with a desire to commit to memory certainly ideas that are certainly exceptional and have a better appreciation for humanity.