#3 The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
Reasons For Being Banned/Challenged: Banned by the St. Louis, Missouri public library (1939) on the grounds that “vulgar words” were used. The library ordered three copies to be burned. It has also been challenged for its portrayals of California farmers, the poor and the working class.
My Rating: 12 Joads a Moving
For The Grapes of Wrath — and any other larger books I’ll be reading — I will break up blog posts. So here is Part I, the first 250 pages of The Grapes of Wrath.
I have never read John Steinbeck before. I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. For the summer of my sophomore year of high school, I was supposed to read East of Eden, but I knew that I would be moving from Connecticut to Illinois. Thus meaning I would start at a new school, and not have to read it. But I did try. I was at my Uconn basketball camp with Geno Auriemma, sitting on my bunk bed, I read the first page, understood nothing, and tossed it aside for the rest of the camp.
But this is fun: on April 14, The Grapes of Wrath is celebrating its 75th anniversary! NPR is even doing a bit of a social media book club with Monkey See for anyone and everyone who wants to read it too. But that is neither here nor there. I am here to talk about what I have read so far. And so far, I can make the claim that the first half of The Grapes of Wrath is, drum roll please…
Really, really slow.
Okay, I went into reading this book totally blind. I didn’t know what it was about, how long it really was, anything. Even the book I have can’t tell me what it’s about. (The copy I have from the library decided to place a big, white sticker on the middle of the back cover, blocking the summary of the book because, REASONS.) And in case you don’t know, it’s about the Joad family from Oklahoma during the end of the 1930s. For you non history buffs, this was toward the end of a massive drought that, combined with the Great Depression, left a huge chunk of Americans with no home, work, or food. So the Joads — as well as everyone else in the Great Plains — pack up and move to Cali; the land of milk and honey.
While reading, I found out that Steinbeck broke up his 30 chapters in 3 sections. The first 10 chapters are about the Joad clan still living in Oklahoma, getting ready to go to California. The second 10 are about their actual traveling to California, Oregon Trail style. And the last are of them actually in California.
Steinbeck also does this thing where every other chapter is poetic, and literary, and deep, and full of imagery, and just so boring. I feel like I am going to be bombarded by Steinbeck fans telling me how I wouldn’t know a literary genius if he slapped me in the face poetically with his words. But I just hate those chapters. I understand their purpose; I just don’t care. They’re supposed to juxtapose the Joad family’s experience with the fact that this was happening to everyone. Steinbeck is able to discuss the effect the Dust Bowl and the Depression had on a large population of people, as well as familiarize the reader with one particular family’s struggles.
And what a family Steinbeck chose. There are so many Joads. Joads everywhere. Here’s a Joad, there’s a Joad, everywhere a Joad, Joad. We have: Granpa Joad, the crazy old man who is running around swearing, drinking, and raising hell; Granma Joad, his wife who shot a shotgun at him once because he was disrespectful towards her; Pa Joad, who constantly blames himself for Noah’s physical and even mental slowness; Ma Joad, the voice of reason and moral compass; Uncle John Joad, Pa’s older brother who is the strong and silent one.
There’s also Noah Joad, the eldest son who is kind of deformed because when Ma was giving birth to him, Pa panicked and started pulling and twisting his body, trying to get him out (Note to self, NEVER have Pa Joad try and deliver my children); Tom Joad, the second eldest son who just got out of jail for killing a guy — in self defence; Rose of Sharon Joad-Rivers, the oldest daughter who just got married to a guy named Connie and is pregnant; Connie Rivers, who is not really a Joad, but married into the family so he counts.
Al Joad is the mechanic of the family who went on a couple girl-chasing benders; Ruthie Joad is 12 and kind of ladylike, but not really; and finally, Winfield Joad, who is only ten, and a wild child that for the first 50 pages I thought was a girl because I kept reading his name as Weatherfield after reading The Catcher in the Rye, and there were never any pronouns used for him. It always just said “Ruthie and Winfield this,” or “Winfield and Ruthie that.” He is, and I repeat, a boy. Not a girl. So yeah, there they all are. Got it?
There’s also Casey, the old preacher. But he gave up preaching because he used to give his sermons and then take women behind the church and bang them in the grass and I guess he felt morally corrupt after that? I mean, I guess that’s a good reason to give it up. Anyway, now that the entire cast has been introduced, I can talk about the story a bit more.
Um, well, things are happening. Tom gets paroled from prison on good behavior and bumps into Casey. They both walk to Tom’s home to find it abandoned. His family had to pick up and leave because the drought was making the land uncroppable. So the banks who owned the land told the Joads to piss off so they could just knock everything down and plant cotton — even though it’s bad for the earth, I think?
Tom and Casey become buddies and walk to Uncle John’s. They make it just a few days before the family leaves for California, and Casey is invited to come along with them. He agrees to go, they then prepare by butchering some pigs for food for the trip. Steinbeck goes step-by-step on how exactly one would slaughter and salt a pig and it is really graphic. I mean, the pig slaughtering was the most interesting thing that happened. I had to read about a stupid turtle trying to cross the road for a whole chapter and I was like, “Dear lord, kill me now.” But the pig slaughtering was at least educational.
And then, when they’re about to go, Granpa is like, “Actually, no. Imma stay here, instead.” The Joads are like in the car, ready to go. It isn’t a minivan either. It’s a jalopy with their entire lives on it, as well as 13 people! That was the hardest thing for me to picture. But Granpa decides that this is the perfect time to be a jerk. So Ma decides to put Nyquil in his coffee and drugs him. And he is pissed that they tricked him into going and pays them back by having a stroke and dying.
Yeah, that’ll teach them, gramps. When they stop for the night, the Joads meet the Wilsons, a husband and wife. They see how sick Granpa is, allow him to sleep in their tent, and then he’s like, “Thanks, strangers. I’m gonna die now.” And then he just strokes out and dies. What kind of thanks is that? Casey then says how Granpa and the land were one and how Granpa couldn’t leave his life behind. What really bothers me with Steinbeck is that sometimes he puts some great symbolism in his work — like the interconnectedness of Granpa and the land — but then he goes and explains it. Like, I get the symbolism, Steinbeck. But you just ruined it by breaking it down for me.
The Wilsons’ car is broken, so Al and Tom fix it and then they hatch the plan to split all of their things together between the Joads and the Wilsons. So now it’s a bit more comfortable and each car isn’t so crowded. Everyone is happy, even though Granpa just died in their new friends’ tent, they had to bury him, and now Granma is acting all kookie and weird. YAY, ROAD TRIPS!
Now, they are meeting people along the journey and some of them aren’t heading west, but leaving California. Apparently, California isn’t as sweet as everyone says it is. Ooooh, drama! And the Joads are like, OMG, what are we gonna do if we can’t find jobs? and everyone is just bubbling over in antici…. ….pation.
And that’s how far I’ve gotten in The Grapes of Wrath. TUNE IN NEXT TIME! Will I be able to make it through another 250 pages? Will there be any real action? How are they all fitting in that small car?! WAIT AND SEE!
How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?
Want to read along with me?
Check out the Banned Books Challenge page to see my progress!