The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck ★★★★★
Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book tells the heartbreaking story of the Joads, a fictional family of displaced farmers from Oklahoma, forced out of their homes because of years of bad crops in an area ravaged by the dust bowls of the 1930’s. The Joads set out on the road in a jalopy packed to the brim with the few belongings they will need while they make their way to California, where there is promise of plenty of jobs and prosperity.
In this social commentary, Steinbeck alternates between the narration of the Joads’ progress, and vignettes describing the realities and hardships which directly affected approximately half a million Americans who sought to better their lives of destitution and near-starvation, prompted by advertisements which promised plenty of work picking the ripe harvests in California. The ‘Oakies’—the term then used to describe these desperate people—were despised by their fellow countrymen because of their extreme poverty and forced vagrancy, but Steinbeck squarely places the blame on big business and the drive for profit at all cost, which was the reason why the farmers were first chased off their lands and then kept in a cycle of poverty they had very little hope of getting out of. The novel received much critical acclaim and was widely read when it was published in 1939, and Steinbeck was later awarded the Nobel Prize largely because of it. But not surprisingly, he was also harshly criticized and labeled as a ‘Red sympathizer’ by those very same people he condemned in the novel.
This novel is now among my all-time favourites. This was my second reading of it (the first time was somewhere around 1985-87). I found it satisfying on more levels than I can describe, and will no doubt read it again and again.