Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath was assigned reading in my freshman Honors Lit class in high school, and I remember that it was also the first book that I didn't finish. I made it through about 50 pages and then gleaned just enough from class discussions to fake my way (poorly) through the essay test. I forget what the 'conflict' was at the time--the '96 MLB playoffs is most likely--but I know I didn't give John Steinbeck's work nearly as much effort as it deserves. I subsequently resolved to never again leave a book unread.

To recall that I didn't get more than ten chapters into this classic helps to confirm that my literary discernment and skill as a reader has indisputably improved since 9th grade. I am presently reading my own copy of The Grapes of Wrath (a handsome old hardcover copy gifted from my sister as a birthday present) and I am now ashamed that I was so unmoved by this work as a young man of 14. As an older young man of 26, I can say now with certainty that Grapes is undoubtedly one of the greatest works I have read.

The Grapes of Wrath is the fictional account of three generations of an Oklahoma sharecropping family forced off their land by the bank to whom they have become indebted and lost their farm. They had lost their farm because of a series of extremely poor crops and the Dust Bowl of the 1930's. Sadly, the family distills their life and possessions into a single vehicle, traveling to California on the promise of year-round harvests and high wages. These promises prove empty and they find their prospects in California much the same as they were in Oklahoma. Men are steadily and effectively reduced to begging and stealing in order to keep their children from starving--often a vain struggle. Families dissolve or wither together as vagrants. The story is broad and terrible, yet the narrative is delivered in still, intimate moments and personal exchanges. Steinbeck's writing resonates with me and this story has gripped me like few have.

An excerpt from Chapter Five, an exchange between the bank representative and a tenant farmer:

You'll have to get off the land. The plows'll go through the dooryard.
And now the squatting men stood up angrily. Grampa took up the land, and he had to kill the Indians and drive them away. And Pa was born here, and he killed weeds and snakes. Then a bad year came and he had to borrow a little money. An' we was born here. There in the door--our children born here. And Pa had to borrow money. The bank owned the land then, but we stayed and we got a little bit of what we raised.
We know that--all that. It's not us, it's the bank. A bank isn't like a man. It's a monster.
Sure, cried the tenant men, but it's our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it's no good, it's still ours. That's what makes it ours--being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.
We're sorry. It's not us. It's the monster. The bank isn't like a man.
Yes, but the bank is only made of men.
No, you're wrong there--quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it.

The tragic nature of the story is what I find most moving, and perhaps because I find it somewhat relevant to my own feelings as a young man of 26 in a changing world. Recent months have marked the first times that I have felt genuine concern about our national/local economy, of which I am a part. In a much less tragic, although not any less real sense, I feel as if I can relate to the men of the Joad family more at this point in my life than I have in any preceding. I see the price of gas rising and I hear only foreboding forecasts--no real solutions. I find our finances tighter than they have ever been, and my only comfort is that I know that everyone around us is in the same situation. The themes of my struggles, albeit of far lesser sacrifice and tragedy, are not unsimilar to those of the heads of the Joad family--feelings of fighting a nameless, faceless entity; the necessity of resolve and hope in seemingly hopeless circumstances.

The migrant farmers occasionally burst in anger at not knowing against whom they are fighting. My reactions to the news reports and talk radio monologues are not very different. The magnitude of the struggle of an individual against a tide of injustice or hopelessness cannot be underestimated. I am reminded Russell Crowe's character in Cinderella Man (also set during the Great Depression) choosing to continue to box because "At least [in the ring] I know who's hitting me." Sometimes I wish I had such an outlet.

O God, our Help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our Guard while troubles last
And our eternal Home!