Tracing the journey of the Joad family from their Oklahoma farm – from which they are evicted, after the Dust Bowl damaged the ecology and agriculture of their farmland (in fact, the very vivid setting presented in the first chapter reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”, in which a crop blight and the dusty environment has made farming impossible) – to California in search of work and perhaps even a better life, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” makes for a depressing read. I have had difficulty with American novels in the past, such as William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, struggling with the context and the dialogue respectively, yet Steinbeck’s portrayal is moving, and the feelings of injustice resonate. In fact, one might remark that their experiences still ring true for those struggling, against capitalism or an established order with little regard for workers, for example, today.
The imagery is powerful, and at times it feels like one is driving or riding along, together with what the family is going through. And the suffering appears shared, too.
In other words, there appears to be an appeal in the universality of the suffering depicted, made possible by Steinbeck’s descriptive prowess and the accompanying narrative of tumultuous experiences faced by the average migrant. From the first chapter he is meticulous in scene-setting and description of the characters – each with their peculiarities – and this strength is even more remarkable for the former, since the family is always on the move. In terms of the narrative, the odd-numbered chapters provide context of real-life circumstances back in the 1930s, and they are paired with the even-numbered chapters which focus on the the travails of the Joad family. In this vein the odd-numbered ones, presented in a matter-of-fact manner, foreshadow interactions or generalise what the family has gone through. This fellow-feeling and identification with the human condition, therefore, stand out.
My version of “The Grapes of Wrath” published by Penguin Books came with a brilliantly penned preface, which provided not only a biography of Steinback but also the arduous process he went through to write the book. Excerpts from the diary “Working Days: The Journal of The Grapes of Wrath” are used, and it is emphasised that the Nobel Prize-winning author did a great deal of research and readings. The perspectives come through, in particular, in the odd-numbered chapters.
Things never do look up for the family, and in fact throughout their journey on an old truck along Route 66 to California – the “mother road” which hundreds of thousands take to escape the Dust Bowl – their encounters with the other migrants provide further clues to the prejudice, frustration, and exploitation they would face (for instance, describing the people from Oklahoma as “Okies”). Deaths and separations are, unfortunately, common features too. It is so unfair, what the Joad family goes through, and there is hardly reprieve from their labour or mishaps, even if iron-willed Ma tries her best to keep the family together and through tough times. The helplessness persists, leaving much to be pondered.