Book Review — Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

“My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other. . . .” —Steinbeck in a 1938 letter

Cover of "The Grapes of Wrath (Penguin Cl...

Cover of The Grapes of Wrath (Penguin Classics)

After years of suffering through the Great Depression and sweeping devastation caused by ‘Black Blizzards’ during the Dust Bowl era, farmers and share-croppers of the southern plains began an odyssey toward hope and the green valleys of California. This was a time of sweeping social and economic change. This was a time when banks, powerful land owners, mechanized farming, prejudice and bigotry sent people packing.

While working as a journalist in San Francisco, John Steinbeck wrote a series of feature articles about these migrant workers. He developed a powerful respect for their initiative and empathized with their plight. Those articles were the stimulus that drove him to write Grapes of Wrath. A short time after its publication, Grapes of Wrath received the 1939 Book of the Year Award from the American Booksellers Association. In 1940 it won a Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

Steinbeck used powerful, lyrical prose while establishing many of the scenes his characters lived in and passed through. He had a gift of writing in the vernacular language of the people of Oklahoma, and the surrounding states. Most chapters were anchored in dialog between the Joad family members and those with whom they had contact. Most of the story centers on protagonist Tom Joad, second son and parolee from an Oklahoma state prison. Ma Joad, the matriarch of the family is the glue that holds the family together.

The first half of the book follows the family along Route 66 from eastern Oklahoma across the state into the Texas Panhandle, New Mexico, Arizona and deserts until they are awed by the beauty of California. Along the way, they experience devastating losses, disappointment, and innumerable hardships. The Joad family meets and bonds with fellow travelers, and experience the generosity of a restaurant cook and waitress. After arriving in California, the family learns harsh realities of life as Okie migrants while camping in one of the infamous Hooverville camps or shanty towns.

Steinbeck gives the reader glimpses of the causes and social issues as seen through the eyes of his characters, but he doesn’t stop there. At times he breaks up the journey and branches into short narratives that read like prose poems. In these narratives he frequently uses repetition to drive home his message. He hammers on banks. He has little patience for land owners who call the migrants squatters even though many of these people acquired the land earlier though questionable means.

He shows us sheriffs, vigilantes and private security officers working as pawns of the powerful. These are the implements of injustice and the source of escalating tensions. They will stop at nothing to quash dissent. Migrants are exploited through the devaluation of their work by these land owners.

Grapes of Wrath lives up to its accolades. Be prepared for an emotional ride. Use it as an opportunity to assess your prejudices and preconceived ideas about this trying time in our history. If you haven’t read Grapes of Wrath, you need to do so.

John Steinbeck wasn’t alone in his call for better treatment of migrants. Dorothea Lange featured this population in brilliant photo essays. I’m including a link to some of her iconic images.

Dorothea Lange: Migrants in Steinbeck Country

Quote from, Steinbeck, John; DeMott, Robert (2006-03-28). The Grapes of Wrath . Penguin Group. Kindle Edition..

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Filed under Award, Book Review, Books, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

13 responses to “Book Review — Grapes of Wrath

  1. Good job; well-written and perceptive. Thank you for adding to the artistic conversation.

    • Thank you Julia. In my opinion John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange proved to be powerful agents of change and advocates for the disadvantaged.
      He painted his characters as bright, resourceful and caring people in contrast to his antagonists. Dorothea Lange did much the same in her photo essays and for that reason, I included one of her iconic images and a link to her work.
      Good writing helps writers and authors become better writers. Powerful images motivate us to better writing if we allow it to move us as it should.
      Thank you.

  2. One more comment. We writers need to write more about great writing, about reading, about the writing process. We need a passion about the word. Thanks again. Julia

  3. Wonderful review Rich, I hope it entices others who haven’t read GOW to pick it up. Nicely done!

  4. I’ve read a few of the ‘classics’, but not the Grapes of Wrath. Thanks for this great review Rich – this is definitely a book that’s well worth giving time to as the issues it explores are as relevant today as they were when it was written.

  5. Thanks for your comments, T.James. Yes, as we look around at the world we live in, we should be vigilant. We have been blessed with freedom and liberty and should never let our guard down.

  6. Kourtney Heintz

    Great review. 🙂 It makes me want to give Steinbeck another try. I tried to read Steinbeck once but I hate setting and scenery. It bores me to tears. I hit a couple pages of it and couldn’t power on.

  7. Kourtney, I can understand your first impressions. I had the same problem with other books. That said, he deals with serious and not always pleasant subject matter but I believe he was a friend and advocate of the common man. There’s plenty to justify his Pulitzer 🙂

  8. Mi-Leing Fong

    Nice review, Rich! As I said earlier, your own writing reminds me of Steinbeck’s. I can see why you love his literature. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get beyond the initial scene in Grapes of Wrath, though I’m thinking of giving it another try one day. East of Eden, however, did capture my attention. The plot was basically good vs. evil, and Steinbeck created some interesting & realistic characters; two that were reminiscent of Cain & Abel. It has been so many years since I read it, I think I might want to re-read that again as well.

    • Thank you again, Mi-Leing!
      Do give Grapes of Wrath. It takes awhile to get into the rural southern plains accents and dialog. That’s the hardest part in my opinion.
      My mother’s family moved from Kansas to California during this period. Their plight wasn’t as severe as others but it was still a difficult time.

      I’ve highlighted the dialectics. Maybe that will help.

  9. I’m in the middle of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, and it is such a compelling story. Steinbeck is so evocative. I have never been to America, but I could picture the lonely restaurants on the highways, the dusty land and the empty houses that Muley Graves walks among.

    What you wrote about Steinbeck branching into ‘prose poems’ reminds me of chapter 14, where he speaks of families meeting other scattered families, and travelling from “I” to “we” in their dispossession. And that chapter on the turtle crossing the road – I couldn’t believe how absorbing it was, and how significant.

    I can’t wait to finish it, but I don’t want it to end, either.

    • Bhavini, I’m pleased the review encouraged you to read, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.
      You made some great points yourself! I think Muley Graves is a power symbol in the the book.

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