TRAVELING WITH THE JOADS
I started the year with a classic, one I'd been avoiding for a long time. I'd read the first 20 pages of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath at least four times, and every time, I closed the book, rolled my eyes, and wondered what all the fuss was about. Boring, I thought. Boring and repetitive and...well, boring again. You know that question they always ask authors in interviews...What do you think is the most overrated book of all time? If I ever got interviewed, I thought Grapes would be my answer. Well, probably Moby Dick. Because that overrated classic I actually read.
But it always bugged me that I'd never read The Grapes of Wrath. Can you call yourself well-read if you've skipped such an obvious big fish? The Modern Library puts it number ten on their 100 Best Novels of All Time list. I love the movie. I saw it years and years ago but I still get teary when I think of Henry Fonda in the darkness, his soft and heartfelt words to his mother..."I'll be all around in the dark...wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there..." Oh, such beauty and pain.
I wanted to scale that wrathful mountain once and for all. So I chose it for my book group. We're a pretty serious group, and we have one rule, our own prime directive: you don't have to come to a meeting, but if you do come, you have to have read the book. Seems kind of obvious, but you'd be surprised -- or maybe you wouldn't -- how many book groups are more about the wine than the book. Since I was hostessing I would have to be there. Which meant I would have to read the book.
And, of course, once I started, I loved it. It was gripping, and desperate, and painful. It felt sadly naive and also perfectly relevant to where we are today. It is a book without irony, without much in the way of humor, without even too many moments that are not bleak and sad. But it had so much love -- for people, family, and for land. It was sentimental, but in the sense of strong, powerful feelings, not silly frivolous sentiment. Yes, it got preachy at times, and some characters were saintly (Ma Joad! that woman could make dinner out of dust and the dishwater left over from breakfast!), but it didn't matter because it was such a big, important, human drama.
I loved the way Steinbeck moved back and forth between the long chapters that followed the Joads on their journey from Oklahoma to California and the short chapters that allowed him a broader scope and the chance to use different voices and explore different characters -- a used-car salesman, a truck-stop waitress, even a turtle.
I loved what first felt to me like naivete (property should belong to all? goods should be shared? there is no God but love? what the hell kind of old-timey 1930s Commie baloney is this?) but soon came to experience as real and honest and beautiful -- in a way that I can't imagine a current book could ever be. here is no irony in The Grapes of Wrath. There is no snark, no sarcasm, no jadedness.
It's a BIG book, and makes no pretense about it. Yet somehow Steinbeck also conveys, in a very few words, the essence of a wide range of characters. From a young girl to an elderly grandfather, everyone feels real, and everyone summons a range a feelings from the reader. No one is completely evil (although several characters feel too good to be believed, but I decided to believe them anyway). The "bad guys" are just as trapped as the rest, trapped by big companies, and banks, and the pressures of the poor economy...is this starting to sound familiar?
We wondered, when talking about Grapes at our meeting (so timely, since it came just a few weeks after Michigan became yet another state to pass right-to-work legislation), if anyone could write (and publish) a book like this nowadays -- a book so sincere, and emotional, and un-ironic. We couldn't think of one, and we couldn't imagine it, which makes me kind of sad. Especially now, when so much in this book feels timely, we could use another Steinbeck and another Grapes of Wrath and really, really another Tom Joad.
I'll end with my favorite line and a plea to read the book if you haven't -- and read it again if you have (I will). It's from the former preacher Jim Casy, the book's conscience and Christ figure: "The hell with it! There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the same thing. And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain't nice, but that's as far as any man got a right to say."