After putting off this thick book for long, one that I had wanted to read for many many years now, I picked up the 533 page 'top 100 novels of the century' book by John Steinbeck, borrowed from my nephew Shrinjay. Not even ten pages into it and I knew that the road ahead was one of great learning and pleasure, for me as a reader (the novel is all about suffering though). Steinbeck's genius is evident in the narrative, dialogue and description in this acclaimed work from the Nobel and Pulitzer prize winning author. But what hit me most was the immense wisdom, the stark honesty that comes through from this story in the form of dialogue or narrative - saying so much in so few words. It was a great pleasure to read this book ranked high up in the top 100 books of all time.
'The Grapes of Wrath' is the story of sharecroppers, the Joads, from Oklahoma, who are driven out of their lands by the landowners or banks during the years of the Great Depression. The proud, honest, hardworking peasant family falls into great hardship as their house is broken down and there is no work. They eventually leave as their money is running out and chase a dream, along with thousands of such people, based on some handbills that promise them a wonderful life in California where they can live in lush green farms, pluck oranges and grapes and build houses etc. The family is large comprising Pa Joad, Ma Joad, Granpa and Granma Joad, Pa Joad's older brother John Joad, Pa Joad's children - a slightly dull Noah Joad, Tom Joad (the protagonist who is just out of jail on parole for murder), Rose of Sharon (pregnant), Connie (her 19 year old husband), Al Joad (16, likes cars and girls), Ruthie (12) and Winfield (10). The family invest in a run down truck to drive them to California and pick up Casy, a quiet ponderous, ex-preacher who travels with them.
The journey is long and beset by many problems. Their dog is hit by a car on the highway and dies, Grandpa dies, Grandma dies, Noah walks off at a river and does not join them, they run out of money, start seeing desperation, hear stories of how the Californians don't like them Okies, experience dishonesty and disrespect, loss of dignity and injustice, and hold themselves together through it all. From Hooverville camps to large hearted neighbours, government camps where they get clean toilets and warm water to unemployment, they see it all. Connie runs away, Tom gets hurt and is hunted, Casy is taken to jail and finally murdered. But the family goes on together, still helping, still staying honest, still true to their old world values.
It is an epic. Written in 1939 'The Grapes of Wrath' could hold true of many places in the world even today. It is the pride, the honesty, the naivety, the inner strength of this poor family that stays together, that never leaves you. Ma looms larger than everyone as she holds the flock together and is easily the single biggest hero of this novel for the scale of sacrifice, strength, power and clarity she brings as all else seems to fall apart around her. Without her the family would have long fallen to pieces. Tom's maverick character, a person who is strong and quick to act, one who cannot tolerate injustice of taunt is wonderful. Casy wonderful character and the nuggets of wisdom he spews when h talks are fantastic. Just as the fine essays Steinbeck writes in between to describe a situation, a place.
Steinbeck's style of writing captures the language of the Oklahoma 'fambly' as they call themselves wonderfully. The family comes to life with their dialogue and Steinbeck stays true to them all through. The way he uses the essays in between chapters to describe conditions is unique - I have not seen this technique before. For the detail, richness of language, tightness of narrative and beauty of description itself it has many points in its favour but it is the wisdom, the little gems that hit one hard in the gut in a few well chosen words of peasant wisdom that leaves an everlasting impression and takes this book to a completely different level.
Wikipedia quotes this one gem - “This is the beginning—from "I" to "we". If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into "I", and cuts you off forever from the "we".
Steinbeck's quote that 'I've done my damndest best to rip a reader's nerves to rags' i printed on the back of the book. Besieged by misfortune to an extent that one would not think possible, the Joad family shows the power of human spirit as they face their fate squarely and proudly, taking each hit on the jaw. But in reality, they say, the lives of migrants in those times were far worse than what were described. To me the book reminded me so much of 'Kanthapura' by Raja Rao, who described the lives of migrant, low caste labourers in pre-Independence times in some part of Karnataka and the fantastic use of the English language that makes the people and their essence come through.