Monday, December 28, 2009

Trampling Out the Vintage (Read: Grapes of Wrath)

I finished reading John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath a few weeks ago. I'd intended to write about it a lot sooner, but long hours at work and the usual Holiday Madness torpedoed my good intentions until now.

Plus, the darn thing is just so weighty, I needed some time to think about it.

Spoiler alert: I'm going to talk a little about some plot points in the novel, so if you haven't read it, don't read further unless you mind a little revelation. 


I probably won't add any amazing new insights on The Grapes of Wrath here -- it is one of the most acclaimed and book-reported novels of all time, after all. But there a few things I'd like to talk about in terms of how it impacted me.

First, I think I was surprised by how political the novel was. I know that Steinbeck was a fairly vocal author on the Big Issues of his day, but knowing that and reading that were two different things. The interstitial chapters and their folksy monologues were just about the most damning essays I've ever read on the essential truths of the American way of life. Yet they also seemed --to me at least-- celebrations of the very thing they condemned: the small but deep ways in which Americans show their compassion to their fellow human being or look out for their loved ones. What a tangled web we weave!

Of course, much of the celebration (and criticism) of the book concerns the gloomy picture Steinbeck painted of Depression-era America. Some critics accused him of playing up the bad stuff, and Steinbeck says he underplayed it, not wanting to reveal how truly horrible the Hoovervilles and working conditions in California were at the time. I can say there were definitely parts of the book I didn't want to read because it was just so bleak. I felt like I was in an audience for a horror movie: 

"Turn back, Tom, don't get in the car!"
 or
"Aw Tom, don't talk to that deputy, you know he just wants to rile you up so he can arrest you!"

Ma Joad was the character I most identified with --  hands balled up in my lap, I sat in the cab of the Joad's Hudson Super-Six, just hoping we'd make it across the desert with the family intact. But deep down, I knew it wasn't to be, no matter how many times I told everyone it was going to be okay.

Speaking of the desert -- as usual, Steinbeck nails sense-of-place. I felt the dust under my tattered shoes, in my eyes, choking my lungs. I smelled the gasoline on the highway and the rotting metal of the scrapyard. Held my nose against the stench of the latrines in the camps and the rotting fruit in the orchards. The people they meet along the way are described in the vivid detail I expect from Steinbeck. I truly lived the journey west with the Joads. 

Finally, the image at the end of the book is one of the most talked about images at the end of ANY book -- and I was not expecting it. I'd managed to avoid any spoilers until about a week before when a friend said to me: "all I remember is there were breasts at the end."

Excuse me?!
Of course, it wasn't quite what I'd envisioned...

Rose of Sharon, barely recovered from her miscarriage, breastfeeds a starving man in the ultimate act of human compassion. It's not really clear whether the man lives or dies because of her act -- because the book ends immediately, branding that image indelibly into our minds forever.

Rose of Sharon spends most of the book a (somewhat understandably) selfish ass, so her sudden turn of compassion to me felt at first more like the author's hand than anything motivated by her growth as a human being. The scene would be perfect on a poster for the Socialist Party or in the editorial pages. (Perhaps it has been used in both places?)

Steinbeck and I probably share some of the same socio-political views, but the image felt a little forced to me -- a sudden collision between the interstitial essays and the main narrative -- or a superimposition of the final title card as the credits roll. It didn't help that I was on a marathon read at 3am, determined not to sleep until I read the final chapters and learned the final fate of the Joads.

Of course, we never do learn what happens next. They are transfigured into powerful symbols of progress and hope as John Steinbeck saw them. And as I wonder what further roads they traveled after Rose of Sharon's compassionate act, that final image has remained with me. That's what you hope for when you sit down to read a book.

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