Wednesday, 30 September 1998

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Edition: Heinemann, 1983
Review number: 124

Steinbeck's famous novel of the collapse of rural America in the depression still packs a punch today. It is the story of the Joad family, dispossessed by a big town bank from land made unproductive by drought and over-farming, joining the streams of similar families heading west to California, lured by rumours of work on farms there. Arriving in California, they discover that they're the victims of a scam - attract five hundred people to jobs for twenty, and you will find twenty who are desperate enough to work for virtually nothing.

The families live in growing desperation and poverty, moved on from county to county at the whim of landowners and corrupt policemen, any who protest accused of being Communists and lynched, blamed for unrest and any petty theft. The central character is the eldest son of the Joad family, Tom; if he gets into any trouble he will be in for a very hard time, as he broke parole for murder (killing a man in a drunken fight) to come with his family.

The Grapes of Wrath is an incredibly depressing novel of human injustice and helplessness; I feel that it was good to read it once, but I probably won't want to repeat the experience for a long time.

For those non-Americans who don't know (and I was one until I looked it up), the title is from the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which talks of the storing up of God's wrath against evildoers: 'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord: / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.'

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