Monday, June 25, 2012

The Grapes of Wrath (book review)

   Our famous little book club tackled a modern classic this session, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Have you read it? Being from Oklahoma, the ancestral land of the Joad family, you might think we all had read it before, but not so.

   Of the twelve ladies who participated this month, only four had read it in school and some of those admitted they might have had help from Cliffs Notes. So in essence this was a new read for everyone. My point is to not feel ashamed if you think you "should" have read Grapes by now, and do not feel guilty if you've only seen the Henry Fonda movie. You might be surprised by how many people are in the same boat. Just please do find time to read it eventually, especially if you are from either Oklahoma or California, the two states whose recent histories are so intertwined in these pages.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, a luxurious tray of fruit, and perfect coffee.
I am so blessed.

   Okay. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, you guys. For the important social and historical reasons, for the chapter rhythm of action/insight/action/insight, for the author's descriptive powers, for the characters, and for the deepening of gratitude it caused in my heart, I loved The Grapes of Wrath.

   This is the story of a tenant farming family from Oklahoma who is driven out of their home because of the Dust Bowl of the early twentieth century. They are a varied group, like any clan, and they follow Route 66 out of necessity, seeking a paradise in California.

   Steinbeck writes in such a way that you feel the excruciating detail of daily life during those hot, dry years; He builds characters worth knowing (my favorite was Ma Joad); and with his words he exposes the natural world in ways that prompt large-scale thinking. Case in point: Chapter 3. It's all about a turtle and its journey across a road. Steinbeck's telescoping observations are plain and profound all at once. He inspires humanity in strong, simple ways, just by telling the story of what was happening in our country at that time.

   One of the things that was happening, of course, was a westbound migration, an influx of people into California from here and other parts of the then suffering country, and I cannot help but make comparisons to our modern issues of Mexican immigration and border control. If you only have time to dabble, then please find chapter 21 and allow your heart to simmer in Steinbeck's perspective on this hot button issue. He paints the picture from both sides and does so poetically.

   Another impression this book made on me was a new understanding of society. Heavily on a few pages about halfway in, but really all throughout the book, the reader sees disconnected people form and reform micro societies. They build social orders and maintain traditions and rituals without being told how to do so. They live and love according to some internal directives, revealing their hearts' desires and their programmed humanity. This stuff was delicious to me. The cycles of need and relief, pain and pleasure, hot and cool, they made every page tangible.

   At our book club dinner-slash-swim party this past weekend, one member Desiree shared with us stories from her grandfather. Like many of our personal ancestors, he was a small child during Oklahoma's Dust Bowl and Depression, but beyond that he has vivid memories of traveling to California with his parents. He remembers picking fruit for pennies and traveling Route 66 by car. He remembers returning to Oklahoma to live with his brother, around eighth grade. This turned out to be his last year of formal education, but he went on to become a successful businessman and is today a well respected pillar of the community in Seminole, Oklahoma. Isn't that incredible? This cemented the Joad family story a little more and is another reminder to me of how much real, pulsing history we have in our grandparents. I am so thankful to Desiree for sharing this with us.


   Something else that we all found interesting was that the term Okie used to be terribly derogatory. Did you know that? I was surprised. I have heard and used this term my entire life and never once tasted negativity with it. But apparently, and certainly in Grapes, Okie was at that time an ugly, demeaning word used to refer to the dirty, misunderstood people from this part of the country. Fellow book-clubber Misti told us Saturday night that it was not until the 1995 Murrah Building bombing that Oklahomans adopted the word as a point of home-state pride and affection. Fascinating. Those of you not from here, have you heard this word? Do you use it? Does it mean anything to you? This is super interesting to me and I'd love some feedback.


   In closing, a few nuts and bolts statistics from our group:

  • Twelve fantastically smart, witty, gorgeous, and hilarious women read this book.
  • Only four of us has sort of read it before.
  • Three of the twelve admitted to not quite finishing the book and were honest about why. The turtle chapter was mentioned as perplexing by more than one person. 
  • Four of us would recommend this book to a friend.
  • Another novel is mentioned in the beginning of Grapes and is touted as another important read, probably a strong influence on Steinbeck at the time: The Winning of Barbara Worth  by Harold Bell Wright. Guess what was just added to my encyclopedic Goodreads list?
  • I used an ink pen with abandon while reading this book and estimate about three or four dozen notable quotes and expressions worth exploring further. The Grapes of Wrath is flush with poetry, wisdom, and social commentary. Read it.
   I hope I have encouraged you to spend some time with this novel. If you have already traveled Route 66 with the Joad family, I would love to hear your thoughts! In the mean time, I wish you the safest, surest journey possible. Appreciate whatever ease you have in life. Know that all difficulties have an end.

Proud to be an Okie
xoxoxoxo

 

pinnable

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