Sunday, 30 July 2017

REVIEW: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I never studied John Steinbeck at school, like a large majority have. Rather than reading Of Mice and Men, I studied To Kill A Mockingbird. So, when I began to read The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck's style and skill were new to me.

Grapes of Wrath was a Christmas present from my mother. I had requested nothing else from Father Christmas than a collection of some of the most iconic books in literary history. So, naturally, The Grapes of Wrath was somewhere near the top of the pile. I didn't know that the story entailed until I flicked the first page and began to read Steinbeck's haunting and humbling words.

As a history obsessive, I was aware of the 'The Dust Bowl' phenomenon, for which is the central part of The Grapes of Wrath. The Dust Bowl was a period of severe dust storms that greatly damaged agriculture across parts of America in the 1930's. The severe drought wiped out crops and left families across the country starving and stricken. With no crops, the farmers were left with no income and as a direct result, rent payments couldn't be made and many families were made homeless. Thousands of families were forced to abandon their farms in search of work, so they traveled across the country with what little money they had left to rebuild their lives again. However, upon moving to different states in pursuit of labour jobs, they met The Great Depression which meant that they were little, to no better off.

It is a tragic tale and one rarely depicted in novels or films. But, maybe that is because Steinbeck covers it all in The Grapes of Wrath. There seems little room for any misunderstanding or any confusion over that time period in American history. It was bleak and hopeless.

Steinbeck doesn't hold back in highlighting just how empty life was for America in the 1930s. Whilst he emphasizes the struggle of the farmers, he also touches upon the wider picture in which the whole country was suffering. It is a time period that America, now one of the most prosperous countries in the world, likes to forget, which is why you don't see Hollywood remembering it with a gritty blockbuster. So, to read Steinbeck, is like to read a missing part of history.

Steinbeck lived those years. Born in 1902, he felt the full effect of The Great Depression, despite being from a privileged background. Born and raised in California, where a large majority of those fleeing the Dust Bowl migrated to, he was afforded the luxury of free accommodation by his parents. This allowed him to write, but it also didn't earn him any money, so when The Great Depression hit, he and his wife were severely affected. So much so that they would steal bacon from the local market. So, when Steinbeck sat down to write The Grapes of Wrath he knew how to make it powerful.

The novel was released in 1939 and was an instantaneous hit. It was the best selling book that year and is often considered Steinbeck's best work. Despite this success, Steinbeck was vilified by the wealthy landowners of California who saw themselves misrepresented in the hard-hitting novel.

It is easy to understand why they may have been an objection to the novel, for it holds no punches with its harrowing storyline. Death, destruction, and disarray are the prominent features, with little room for anything else. The focus is firmly on the plight of the Joad family, who flee Oklahoma for a new life in California. They spend every penny they have on their migration, ready to reap in the rewards as fruit-pickers in the orange rich state. However, misled by glossy posters, they arrive to find no work.

They live on the road side, on a diet of practically nothing, amongst hundreds of families in the same situation. It is a heart breaking story to read, for it truly happened. In a modern world where poverty only exists on that scale in third-world countries, it is hard to picture America in such disarray. Except, Steinbeck's descriptive and haunting way of writing help you to picture it, in alarming clarity.

Reading the novel in 2017, afforded a new perspective on The Grapes of Wrath, one that readers anytime before 2007 would have struggled to comprehend. Modern technology means that today, a similar situation would never occur, in America at least, for social media would explode. An example of this is the situation in Flint, with the putrid water. Whilst the situation may be being ignored by Donald Trump, it is not by the world. Help is being given to those affected by people financially stable enough. But, in 1930, Twitter didn't exist. Nor did telephones, meaning that when a few members of the family needed to move, they all did, otherwise there would be the guaranteed risk that they would never see each other again.

The book is a challenging read, for it commands your emotions, and because of that it is an essential read. Not only does it educate on a time period on history so poorly represented, it also tells you the tale of a personal plight and raw human behaviour. It will have you gripped from the very beginning to the end and will make you look at the homeless people in the streets in a whole new light, trust me.

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