John Steinbeck’s controversial novel tells the story of the migration of an Oklahoma Dust Bowl family as they journey to California in search of work. Dogged by bad luck and dashed hopes, the Joad’s are forced to accept ever-decreasing wages as they move from place to place, struggling to keep their family together.
I’ve had this book on my shelf for years, but have never been able to get past the first couple of chapters. Thankfully, the audio version is much more accessible, being superbly narrated by John Chancer. Steinbeck’s drama is a human one, its style largely written as reported speech. Though the dialogue is realistic, some of the monologues do go on a bit too long. The story is interspersed with prose interludes commenting on the bigger picture in terms of what was happening in America at the time, which helps place the narrative within the wider cultural and historical context.
Steinbeck’s use of Christian religious imagery is interesting, though at times becomes a little irritating – particularly in relation to the character of ex-preacher Casy, whose speeches I’d have happily skipped over. However, for the most part, the book is a fascinating portrayal of the effects of the Depression on thousands of families.
Though lauded by working class readers at the time, Steinbeck found himself branded a communist by business and government officialdom. California farmers especially were deeply offended by his depiction of land owners and their attitudes and treatment of migrant workers. Even so, The Grapes of Wrath became a bestseller, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, and was made into a classic movie by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.
Having said all that, one issue does still hang over the author of the ‘Great American Novel’. Writer and journalist Sanora Babb took meticulous notes during visits to migrant workers in the Dust Bowl with her boss, Tom Collins. As it happens, Collins was a pal of Steinbeck, and while Steinbeck acknowledged the help Collins had given him with details of his experiences, he gave no credit to the information he also took from Sanora’s notes, which Collins secretly passed to him. Needless to say, Babb’s novel, Whose Names are Unknown, was seen as too similar to The Grapes of Wrath, and wasn’t published until 2004, shortly before her death.
Though Steinbeck clearly had many faults, not least those mentioned in a book by one of his wives, Gwyn Conger, who refers to him as a sadistic man and serial womaniser, his contribution to American literature would be difficult to refute.
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