Seventy plus years old and still going strong
Perhaps the difference between good books and the truly great books is that the latter remain relevant long after their authors have died. I have no idea if that is at all defensible as a thesis. Someone has probably spent longer than thirty seconds thinking about it.
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has suddenly shot up my list of books that would be on my short list for a desert island. In fairness, that’s because I would rather have ten books and one song than ten songs and one book, so I know I am cheating, but still.
I have to confess that I have a lot of catching up to do on the books I am supposed to have read. For which read authors who are long since dead. I am berated at home for being quite happy to have read mainly post-1945 German fiction, and the same charge could be applied to me when it comes to English language literature. In my defence, I have read Goethe, Schiller and Lessing. I just didn’t really like them. And don’t get me started on Thomas Mann. I spent an otherwise pleasant summer reading his very long Magic Mountain book. It was very long, did I mention that? Not a lot happened. Actually, I think nothing really happened. Certainly nothing that I can recall. When I got back to university, it turned out that nobody else in my year had even bothered. I wasn’t too sure they were wrong about that.
But Steinbeck is not in that category. In fact, if you asked me what book politicians should read in 2016, my answer would be Grapes of Wrath. It puts a human face to the misery we hear about every day.
I started reading the book after asking a colleague at work what his favourite book was. This was one of his top three. And then I got a bit stuck. The dialogue is hard going, written in Oklahoma dialect. I don’t think we would do that now. It makes picking up and putting down the book quite difficult, and as I read a lot that way, in the odd few minutes waiting for someone or something, that did not help. The real impetus came when LoLo announced she was reading it (she found it on a Kindle and just decided to read it) and was already about as far as I was. Then it became a competition, then I missed a few hours sleep to get it finished. The last third just flew by.
The book is the story of the Joad family, tenant farmers who are forced to leave their farm and home in Oklahoma when the bank forecloses on the land. This does not come as a huge surprise to them as it has been happening all around then. We then go with them on a journey to California, where they have been promised jobs, a new home and peaches. They travel in an old car (I learned the word “jalopy” and a host of other words from this book, all of which are, I now know, well known to an American). Three and a half (an unborn baby) generations are travelling together with, they hope, enough money to get them to California, but not much more. We learn about 1930s cars and their tyres, the American economy, and mostly about family and human relationships. And I ended up thinking that, if we had heeded the warning Steinbeck gave in his novel, we might not be in the mess we are today.
Steinbeck takes an unusual approach to the structure of the book. He moves between general descriptions of what is happening in the place the Joad family is about to arrive at to their actual experience. Sometimes he does this by bringing in unconnected characters in the place they are nearing, giving us a sense of what they are about to go through. This starts off as being confusing but we soon get the hang of it. And later on, we start to get more commentary on what is going on in the world around the Joads. Take this example
And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression. The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out.
I suspect Joseph Stiglitz would find some common ground with those sentiments in 2016. And Steinbeck gives the same message in more philosophical terms, and in only one sentence:
The quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we.”
There are some wonderful descriptions throughout the book. This was one of my favourites – for the last three words.
About mid-afternoon child bathing began, and as each child was caught, subdued, and washed, the noise on the playground gradually subsided. Before five, the children were scrubbed and warned about getting dirty again; and they walked about, stiff in clean clothes, miserable with carefulness.
Steinbeck portrays the mother in the family – “Ma” – with a wonderful sense of her strength and resilience in the face of whatever happens to them. She adapts, she adjusts, and she shows that what matters most to her is keeping her family together. She expresses her view of life – and the difference between men and women – in these lovely few lines – where you also see the way the dialogue is written:
Man, he lives in jerks—baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk—gets a farm an’ loses his farm, an’ that’s a jerk. Woman, it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out. People is goin’ on—changin’ a little, maybe, but goin’ right on.
If the theme of the concentration of wealth, then in California, now throughout the world, is not enough relevance for today, we see the Joad family as one of thousands of migrant families. Here is Steinbeck’s description of the change of attitude towards refugees and migrants which we have experienced over the last year:
Then from the tents, from the crowded barns, groups of sodden men went out, their clothes slopping rags, their shoes muddy pulp. They splashed out through the water, to the towns, to the country stores, to the relief offices, to beg for food, to cringe and beg for food, to beg for relief, to try to steal, to lie. And under the begging, and under the cringing, a hopeless anger began to smolder. And in the little towns pity for the sodden men changed to anger, and anger at the hungry people changed to fear of them. Then sheriffs swore in deputies in droves, and orders were rushed for rifles, for tear gas, for ammunition. Then the hungry men crowded the alleys behind the stores to beg for bread, to beg for rotting vegetables, to steal when they could.
And does this not sound awfully like the attitude of many towards the refugees arriving on our doorstep:
The sheriffs swore in new deputies and ordered new rifles; and the comfortable people in tight houses felt pity at first, and then distaste, and finally hatred for the migrant people.
On a slightly happier note, there are many moments of human kindness throughout the book, and these remain in your memory long afterwards. The couple who let the Joads use their tent when a member of the family was seriously ill. The encouragement the family received in a camp which was run by the residents in a humane and caring manner, even if it could not address the fundamental economics of the times. And I was reminded again today that there are little acts of kindness being carried out all around us. This little garden in a small town near us made me think of what Ma Joad would have been doing if she were alive today:
Grapes of Wrath is remarkably relevant to our current world, despite being over seventy years old. But when Steinbeck finished it, this is what he had to say about it:
It isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book.
Gosh, these writers are never happy.