When the list for PBS’ Great American Read program was released, I was pleased to see that among several favorites, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” made the cut. Steinbeck has long been in my universe of preferred books. Over the course of a few years while I was a teenager, I made my way through several of his works, including “Of Mice and Men,” “East of Eden,” and the lesser known but deeply comic work “Tortilla Flat.” But of those books, it’s only been “The Grapes of Wrath” that I’ve returned to repeatedly. Since I rarely re-read anything, that says a lot.
When I read it first in high school, it was little more than a good story. But some part of it must have stayed with me, whether it was the perseverance of the Joad family in working for a better life in California, or the injustices they faced in their efforts. In the years and the times I’ve read it since, it’s come to mean far more than that – though it certainly is a great read.
The story of Tom Joad and his family is a story of America. It’s the story of immigrants. These immigrants don’t come from other countries, but they’re just as important in shaping the country as we know it. The Joads represent the largest of several internal mass migrations. They join two and a half million others fleeing widespread crop failures, soil erosion and bank repossessions in the Midwest of the Dust Bowl era. Called “Okies,” these migrants meet with many of the same challenges and prejudices as other immigrant groups.
Radicalized by the murder of a Jesus-like former preacher standing up for the rights of workers, Tom Joad attacks and kills one of the assailants. Already an ex-convict who broke parole by leaving Oklahoma, Joad becomes a fugitive, pledging to stand up for the oppressed. Heavy rains and difficulty finding work leave the Joad family with a deeply uncertain future at the end of the book. For some, the ending is unsatisfying. But I find the essential uncertainty, and the rawness of it, is what gives it such power. It’s what gives the whole book its power.
“The Grapes of Wrath” resonates because the issues it deals with are still relevant for us, almost eighty years after it was published. We’re forced to grapple with issues of class and the rights of the workers who harvest our food, existing on the margins of society on the lowest of incomes. Steinbeck forces us to look at our tendency to demonize the “other” coming into our communities. He makes us question how we can treat fellow citizens so poorly. Given that we seem nowhere close to resolving these issues, “The Grapes of Wrath” is likely to remain relevant. Steinbeck’s work may not win the final Great American Read vote, but it surely earned its place on the list.
Reviewer Brady Clemens is the district consultant librarian at Schlow Centre Region Library.