In a way, John Steinbeck’s book The Grapes of Wrath was the first literary work I really dusted off. It stands out as the first classic novel I read (for a time, it was the only classic novel I’d read, not that I’m trying to embarrass myself), and it’s still one I look back to as a stunning example of what a determined writer can create.
You, on the other hand, might remember The Grapes of Wrath as that long road-trip book you had to read about in high school with so many themes and high-flown motifs that your eyes glazed over.
Or you might think of Steinbeck’s novel as being so of its time—what with the Dust Bowl and Great Depression being major influences, not too mention the sheer quantity of head-scratching 1930s slang—that it sounds like an okay read for historical purposes, but certainly not for any relevant novel.
I wouldn’t call those two views misconceptions, per se. The Grapes of Wrath does have a long road journey along Route 66, and the novel, by my own count, must have around half a dozen overarching themes; it’s also true that Steinbeck grounded his work so thoroughly in his era that to read this novel, there’s no mistaking where and when you are.
But those aren’t bad qualities.
Indeed, as the poetry class at my university discussed yesterday, sometimes the best way to be relatable and relevant in writing isn’t to be vague and universal but instead to be specific and focused.
I’m not from Oklahoma, I’ve never been homeless, and my syntax doesn’t typically involve saying things like “scrooge aroun’ ” in a tub full of grapes (you can thank Grampa Joad for that remark).
But I can still connect to many of the emotions and frustrations the main characters go through, and while the problems depicted in the novel are from the 1930s, that doesn’t mean they’re still not with us in other forms.
With that in mind, let me just give you a brief-but-tantalizing look at the basic plot in The Grapes of Wrath: in the middle of the Great Depression, paroled convict Tom Joad returns to his family in Oklahoma, only for them to move out-of-state. They journey to California, which has so many exaggerated promises for farming and sharecropping families that the Joads feel bound to find the good life (or at least an improved life) there.
I won’t reveal too much about what the Joads encounter once they reach the Golden State because those are chapters that have to be read to be believed, but I do also want to mention the parallel track of spirituality that goes along with this narrative. Steinbeck was brilliant to include the character of Jim Casy, an ex-preacher who seems to be going through an existential and spiritual crisis during the novel.
It would be easy to say that Casy becomes the book’s moral compass, but that wouldn’t be doing Casy justice. While I didn’t find myself agreeing—at least on my initial read—with most of Casy’s ideas, just his ability to question everything and find faith in his fellow humans is fascinating and something you probably won’t find anywhere else in literature.
So, please give Grapes a chance; if you don’t dust it off, that could mean a missed opportunity to see an enduring take on American resiliency and endurance.
Also, check out what others have to say about this book on Goodreads.com, and follow me on Twitter at @ethan_nelsonwrt for takes on reading and writing, all under 280 characters.