Review: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I knew two things about The Grapes of Wrath going into it: that it’s a story of the Great Depression, and that, thanks to its appearance in school reading lists, a lot of people have a love-hate relationship with it. I had no idea it would be such a radical and relevant novel about environmental apocalypse, cutting through the 80-odd years separating us like they simply don’t exist.

In simple terms the 1939 novel follows the Joad family as they journey from Oklahoma to California in the 1930s. The Joads are share-croppers – they are tenants on the land that they work – and are driven off by drought and industrial agriculture, which requires far less labour. Following notices advertising work in California, they gather their belongings, buy a run-down sedan and convert it into a truck, and begin a harrowing journey along Route 66.

In California they find the lush fruit orchards and vineyards they’ve been dreaming of, but also vast and systematic exploitation of migrant workers like themselves. Their camps are disrupted by police and the landowners deliberately keep the migrants in poverty to drive down labour costs. There are some refuges and the stirrings if collective action, but they are fragile, and don’t mean anything unless the families can feed themselves.

It’s a pretty miserable story. Characters drop left, right and centre and one damn thing happens after another. But I was inspired and angered by the Joad’s struggle. Steinbeck’s righteous fury comes through insistently. For instance: “And the children dying of pellagra must die because profit cannot be taken from an orange.” It also has one of the wildest endings in a novel I’ve read in a long time.

For all the misery and violence (which is sporadic, but very gruesome) it is lit by love for its characters. If you ever had to travel across the US in extreme poverty, you’d want it to be with the 12 starting members of the Joad family (including a tag-along priest). They rib each other mercilessly but they are endlessly compassionate, extending that compassion to strangers they gather on the road. As one character notes, “if you’re in trouble or hurt or need – go to poor people”, which sounds like an overly sentimental line but is hard-won by the narrative. As Ma Joad says, “we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people – we go on.” After reading The Plague by Albert Camus, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the female characters are centred, and their interiority given as much if not more time than the men.

There is so much that feels relevant in this book. From its depiction of migrants and the intolerance they face (“They’ll take the country. Outlanders. Foreigners”), to the inevitable inequity between owners and tenants that has reared its ugly head during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a powerful argument for collectivism in all its forms. It feels like an antidote to all the problems of late capitalism, and a warning to those who fail to heed warnings of growing inequality.

It’s also a deeply environmental novel. As much as the Joads’ woes have economic causes, for Steinbeck it is primarily an ecological crisis, driven by inappropriate land use. He is persistently interested in the environment his characters are on – the plants and animals, soil and landforms – in a way that few other novels are. It could not be more relevant to the global environmental catastrophe we’re all staring down the barrel of.

Steinbeck makes astute observations of the relationship between people and the land. The Joads live for better or worse with the land’s rhythms, working the soil with their own labour. Meanwhile the tractors of industrial agriculture produce cash crops like cotton that quickly render the land dead. He also seems to be reaching for the idea – in language of the time – that the Joads’ custodianship of the land came at the expense of the violent dispossession of Native Americans, adding a poignant historical depth.

It is an effective rebuttal to apocalyptic fiction such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Faced by extreme suffering, Steinbeck shows a people whose instinct isn’t to eat each other, but to come together. I wonder which is more likely. Hopefully we’ll never have to find out.

While Steinbeck’s writing may be furious, he is always empathetic to his characters, whether it is to the poverty-stricken migrants or the rich landowners living on their enormous estates nursing their fear of death. It is vernacular, rhythmic and tough to chew on – I put on a strong Southern drawl in my head to get through the dialogue. Most thrilling are the alternating chapters, a kind of collective stream-of-consciousness, voiced by an unnamed babble of characters – owners, migrants, small farmers. It is still bracingly strange eight decades later.

Gay rating: not gay

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