February was a hairy time for our family but always with me was The Grapes of Wrath which quite by chance turned out to be the perfect read because it could be read in snatches whenever I got the chance and because ultimately it’s about family and the human spirit. I bought a new copy but it now looks as dogeared as I felt!
Chronicling the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930’s, the Joad family, along with thousands of other tenant farmers are pushed out of their homes in Oklahoma when the land owners find that ‘one man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families’, and head to California where there’s always work and it never gets cold and you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange and live in a little white dream house. A hope that keeps them alive.
The slow, crawling movement of the Joad’s journey, often felt biblical in its allusion to Exodus and the promised land, their honourable need to find work and their obsessive quest to make a new home. The long, cumbersome rhythm of their journey along Route 66 is interspersed with the most beautiful descriptions
‘A large red drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And a dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the land from the east. the evening star flashed and glittered in the dusk. the grey cat sneaked away toward the open barn shed and passed inside like a shadow.’
which together make the harsh reality of their arrival in California heartbreaking. The industrial farming that’s taken over in Oklahoma is the same in California and they join the thousands of hungry, bewildered, migrants. While the men search for work Ma keeps the family together. “It was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials’, is the way Steinbeck introduces her and I thought she was completely wonderful! Tough but tender she is now my number one literary mother! With her hands that ‘had grown sure and cool and quiet’ she can always scratch a fire together and find something for everybody to eat, she knows that ‘if she sways the family shook’.
What made The Grapes of Wrath so easy to read in snatches was its structure. The long traditional storytelling chapters about the Joads’ were broken up with interchapters, short lyrical chapters that give an overview of the migrants life, each one with a different tempo and I think could be read alone. We know about the ancient creaky Hudson truck, overloaded with beds and Joad family members that has cost their savings and carries all their trust but then we get a jazzed up, quick fire look in a second hand car showroom full of desperate people being taken for a ride by a salesman:
‘All right Joe. You soften ’em up an’ shoot ’em in here. I’ll close ’em, I’ll deal ’em or I’ll kill ’em. Don’t send in no bums. I want deals.
Yes sir step in. You got a buy there. Yes sir! at eighty bucks you got a buy.’
Or a chapter that begins:
‘The spring is beautiful in California. Valleys in which the fruit blossoms are fragrant pink and white waters in a shallow sea. Then the first tendrils of the grapes, swelling from the old gnarled vines, cascade down to cover the trunks.’
And then when we’re fully lulled into the lusciousness of the plump, ripe fruit, we’re hit with the reality of the stench of rotting fruit because there’s so much of it it’s worthless. The canneries owned by the big land owners keep the price down so the small farmers can’t afford to pay pickers, and in turn will lose their land.
I absolutely loved this book, it was as surprising as it was beautiful. ‘He was as lean as a picket’, was just one gorgeous description and ‘The hot air folded waves over the land, and the mountains shivered in the heat.’, is I think, perfect. I loved the huge cinematic vision but also Ma Joad fretting over her family not coming up to scratch when the ladies come visiting! And it ended with the milk of human kindness.