Fiction — print. Penguin Classics, 2006. Originally published 1939. 464 pgs. Library copy.
Despite having read two other works by Steinbeck (one I loved and one I didn’t), I have been afraid of this particular novel for quite some time. Maybe because my expectations have grown by leaps and bounds the more I read works by Steinbeck or maybe it’s because the back of my copy calls it “the most American of American classics” and the book won the Pulitzer in 1940. Either way, I have checked it out of the library and returned it without even reading the first page many times.
I have reached chapter nineteen (page 231 in my edition). The Joads have left Oklahoma and have just reached California. A couple of people along the way have warned them, told them to head on back because California is nothing but empty promises. But the Joads are still hopeful, and I cannot help but be hopeful too.
I also cannot help but wish I lived closer to my grandfather so I could ask him about his experiences. Having lived through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma, I think it would be interesting to compare his experiences to that of the fictional Joad family Steinbeck profiles.
As much as I like “armchair traveling”, I always enjoy reading novels set in places I have visited, and I have spent a lot of time in Oklahoma. My best friend lives there, and my brother goes to school there. Steinbeck also mentions my grandfather’s hometown and the town in which my dad was born in this tale.
I couldn’t help but compare the depression depicted in this novel to the one currently occurring. On page 52, Muley says:
“’Cause what’d they take when they tractored the folks off the lan’? What’d they get so their ‘margin a profit’ was safe? They got Pa dyin’ on the groun’, an’ Joe yellin’ his first breath, an’ me jerkin’ like a billy goat under a bush in the night. What’d they get? God knows the land’ ain’t no good. Nobody been able to make a crop for years. But them sons-a-bitches at their desks, they jus’ chopped folks in two for their margin a profit. They jus’ cut ’em in two. Place where folks live is them folks. They ain’t whole, out lonely on the road in a piled-up car. They ain’t alive no more. Them sons-a-bitches killed ’em.”
Remind you of all those foreclosure signs, anyone? The image of rows and rows of foreclosure signs shown on the national news almost every night immediately popped into my head when I read that particular passage.
What I love most about this novel so far is the accent in which the characters speak. It takes some time getting used to, but I can now hear it in my head quite clearly.
“Ever’body says words different,” said Ivy. “Arkansas folks says ’em different, and Oklahomy folks says ’em different. And we seen a lady from Massachusetts, an’ she said ’em differentest of all. Couldn’ hardly make out what she was sayin’.” (pg. 135)
Then there is the camaraderie on the road amongst all those migrating families. There isn’t much interaction among travelers these days as people are directed to predetermined rest stops and camp sites. I’ll admit that I cringe when the person sitting next to me on the plane, bus, or train wants to talk rather than letting me read. But that wasn’t the case back then, according to Steinbeck.
“In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The lost of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream. And it might be that a sick child threw despair into the hearts of twenty families, of a hundred people; that a birth there in a tent kept a hundred people quiet and awestruck through the night and filled a hundred people with the birth-joy in the morning…Every night a world created, complete with furniture — friends made and enemies established; a world complete with braggarts and with cowards, with quiet men, with humble men, with kindly men. Every night relationships that make a world, established; and every morning the world torn down like a circus.” (pg. 193-194)
So the Joads have arrived in the “promised land” so to say, and I am excited to enter California with them. Although, I have a sense of dread and fear in the pit of my stomach. After all, the other Steinbeck works I have read haven’t exactly left me with warm fuzzies in the end.