Friday, July 6, 2012

The Grapes of Wrath

The first book of my own "Classics Challenge" (read 50 classics in 5 years) was one that I never got to, perhaps because the story was fairly well-known.  The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck follows the Joad family from the Oklahoma dustbowl to California to find work during the 1930's.  It's a story of trial and tribulation, some humor, and a lot of anger.  Why don't the "haves" help out the "have-nots"?  How can we allow our citizens to live in hovels and on very little good food?  The Joads are ever-hopeful for a break, but they are beset by their fellow Americans at every turn and, finally, by nature.

Young Tom Joad leaves prison after several years of having three square meals a day.  He runs into Casy, a former preacher, on his way home, and they both arrive just in time to accompany three generations (and another on the way) of the Joad family on a sad trip west.  Death, hunger, and deception follow them at every turn.  When they do find work picking fruit or cotton, the prices get consistently lowered by greedy landowners who know how hungry potential workers are.  If the workers try to strike, there are others hungry enough to take their places.  Organzing has little effect, yet seems the only solution to a situation spiraling out of control. 

The family tries to stay together, with Ma Joad becoming the strength they need and Pa just puzzled and trying the best he knows to do what the situation requires.  It's a sad story and still relevant today.  Jim, visiting here from Alabama this week, mentioned that parts of that state have no electricity or phone service.  Public schools, he says, are lousy and those who cannot afford private schools (blacks, Latinos, the poor) receive minimal educations.  Property taxes, which would pay for education, are kept low, but sales taxes are high and even cover food and clothing.  This is shocking in an age when many of us have so much.  The Grapes of Wrath certainly offers much to think about.  I'm glad I read it!  I even liked the format:  one chapter plot, the next a poetic riff on the situation.

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