The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (Part Two)

At the beginning of chapter nineteen, which I used as the dividing line between parts one and two, Steinbeck traces the ownership of the land know forming California from Mexicans to land-hungry Americans who actually worked the land, to owners who are more like overseers than farmers. This land is a distant notion — a sort of line in an accounts book – to these men rather than something they live and breathe. The Joads and other “Okies” streaming into California are people to fear as they are the new land-hungry men and women looking to make a buck and feed their children off this land.

“In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.” (pg. 283)

There is also the conflict amongst those laborers already here and those arriving by the hundreds thousands every day. Unable to find workers, these large landowners imported people from Mexico or China or other parts of the globe. Should these workers get out of hand or start talking about unionizing, it’s quite simple to deport them. You can’t deport an American from America. Plus, as more and more men streamed into the lush valleys, wages were driven down.

“If that fella’ll work for thirty cents, I’ll work for twenty-five. If he’ll take twenty-five, I’ll do it for twenty. No, me, I’m hungry. I’ll work for fifteen. I’ll work for food.” (pg. 283)

Not to mention, prices stayed up as wages went down. Steinbeck gives the example in chapter twenty-one of a cannery paying lower than cost of production for the input and keeping the price of canned goods high so small farmers were forced to sell out to those farmers, banks, and companies who owned the canneries. People, this is the food system we have in the United States today! The fields are even more fruitful today than they were back then, and yet there are people all over this country (and the world) who are still hungry. This is the world in which the Joads live, and it’s a world that still exists today. We still dump food today.

“There is a crime here the goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And the children of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates – died of malnutrition – because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.” (pg. 349)

So, of course, this book is still relevant for today’s readers. This raw social commentary still applies to so many factions of our society – immigration, crop laborers, our food system, the face of hungry – that it’s still as difficult of a read as I’m sure it was back then. But it deserves it’s title of “classic” and I urge you to pick it up if you haven’t already.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006. Originally published 1939. Print. 464 pgs. ISBN: 0143039431. Source: Library.

The Classics Circuit

I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck for The Classics Circuit‘s A Celebration of Steinbeck, which continues through August 26, 2011. Those visiting for this tour might also be interested in my thoughts on two other works by Steinbeck — Of Mice and Men and The Pearl.

Book Cover © Penguin Classics. Retrieved: August 4, 2011.
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The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (Part One)

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.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006. Originally published 1939. Print. 464 pgs. ISBN: 0143039431. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Penguin Classics. Retrieved: August 4, 2011.

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s novella examines the hold money has on people. The story begins with Kino and Juana’s baby boy, Coyotito, being bitten by a scorpion in La Paz, Mexico. The couple lacks the funds to pay the town’s doctor and are turned away with the slam of a gate. The couple take their sick little boy down to the waterfront and use a tribal cure to try to save the little boy’s life. The couple worries for their son’s safety, but Kino’s work as pearl finder must be performed. He has no choice but to continue searching in the water for the key to lifting them out of poverty. In the depths of the waters off Mexico, however, Kino one day finds the “pearl of the world”.

At first, Kino envisions a better future the pearl will bring to his family — new clothes, a proper wedding for him and Juana, and a proper education for Coyotito. But as the wealth and happiness he perceives the pearl will provide for his family takes hold of him, his judgement begins to cloud.

Steinbeck’s point in this simple, short tale is glaring obvious — money does not buy happiness. Greed and hope are both motivators of people’s actions; we want more money because we hope it will make our lives happier. The introduction to the novella in this particular edition, which was almost as long as the tale itself, says the tale was based on a Mexican folk tale.

The novella didn’t do it for me, though. At ninety-seven pages, the story is easy to follow but it felt really condensed to me. The character’s motivations shift abruptly at the end of the tale, and therefore the ending was lacking in explanation. I loved Steinbeck’s writing style in another short story by him I have read, but this particular style was so sparse and dry that I had a hard time reconciling the two stories in my mind.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Steinbeck, John. The Pearl. New York: Penguin, 1994. First published 1948. Print. 97 pgs. ISBN: 0140187383. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Penguin. Retrieved: July 6, 2011.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

I’ve been afraid of Steinbeck’s classic novel for so long; the title alone always put me off because I never could see the connection between the two. Yet, when I went to retrieve Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath from the library, I was completely surprised to see how short Of Mice and Men really is. Right then and there I decided my fear was completely irrational — after all, I’ve read novels that 1,000 pages — and added it to my stack of books.

The novella follows Lennie Small, a large, brawny man who is also mentally slow, and George Milton, the opposite of Lennie in every way, as they travel from farm to farm during the 1930s looking for work, looking to make enough money to get their own slice of land where they can be their own boss and Lennie can take care of the rabbits. Lennie, though, manages to get into trouble everywhere they go, which forces them to flee under the cover of darkness. At their newest place of employment, George tells Lennie not to speak to anyone, especially not to Curley’s wife. But, just as before, Lennie gets in trouble.

The title stems from Lennie’s obsession with petting mice; he’s too strong and often his affection for the animal causes them to die. And the novel as a whole reminded me of a cross between My Louisiana Sky and Flowers for Algernon. The mother in My Louisiana Sky was so enthralled with hugging her kitten that she squeezed it too tightly and killed it; in Flowers for Algernon, Charlie is mentally slow and yet loves the mouse, Algernon. Of course, Of Mice and Men (1936) was written before any of these other novels, but the feelings I get from it are similar to the ones I get from the others.

Anyways, the novella examines what friendship really means and the role dependency plays in our lives. Lennie’s dependency on George causes neither of them to learn what it means to be independent, and their interwoven dream of owning their own farm places a strain in their relationship throughout their time together. These characters, though, are perfectly written, perfectly formed. The characters are what propel the plot forward, and that is the most beautiful part of this heart-wrenching novel.

Of Mice and Men is clearly a classic for a reason.

Others’ Thoughts:

Books Mentioned:

  • Holt, Kemberly Willis. My Louisiana Sky. New York: Yearling, 2000. Print. 208 pgs. ISBN: 9780440415701. Source: Purchased.
  • Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. Fort Washington, PA: Harvest Books, 2005. Print. 324 pgs. ISBN: 9780156030304. Source: Class handout.
  • Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. Print. 103 pgs. ISBN: 0142000671. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Penguin Group. Retrieved: December 31, 2009.