Monday, January 26, 2009

Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath: lessons and reminders

Forgotten on my bookshelf the last 5 or 6 years has been a set of John Steinbeck books, including his classic Grapes of Wrath. The books look really nice on the shelf, but I wasn't really drawn to them. Oh, I did read two pages of Grapes the day we put the set on the shelf but I quickly lost interest. Last week something drew me back to the book.

Since a week ago yesterday, I hardly put the book down. I'm a slow reader (good, but slow) but I devoured it at a clip of about a hundred pages per night. It is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful, moving, demanding books I've ever read. It's easy reading, written in the phonetic vernacular of its characters. Despite being loaded with themes, symbolism, and allusions, it moves along quickly like a pulp western. I found that I couldn't stand waiting to see what happened next to the Joads and their companions.

I'm hardly an expert on literature. I just know what I like and what I don't like. I know whether or not I am moved, changed. Grapes of Wrath changed me. At least in the short term, while under the book's spell, I see the world in a different light.

Dying to write about it, I was tempted to discuss themes and symbolism, to take on the larger messages of the book. I thought about discussing socio-political issues raised by the book. But I'm simply not qualified to do all that, and scholars make their living on dissecting, breaking down such things. I'll leave all that to them and to you should you pick up the book.

Lesson. Reminders. Parallels. Grapes is set in the 1930's, smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl migrations to California. (In many ways, it reminded me of -- or felt like -- Angela's Ashes which takes place at the same time in Limerick, Ireland.)

To hear people talk now, we're in another depression. People are fleeing my home state for work. Families are losing their jobs and their homes. Government help seems their only short-term option. The parallels are fascinating, yet, it's too easy to draw them, make much out of them.

The contrasts between then and now probably couldn't be more stark. Our poor, for the most part, have food, shelter and clothing. They even have access to medical care. Of course, we have a significant homeless problem, but today's poor generally have their basic needs met. My trips through our so-called "slums" or "ghettos" have shown me families living below the poverty line can still somehow manage to afford satellite TV! Dust Bowl migrants, if they could find work, were lucky to earn $1.50 to $3.00 picking fruit or cotton 10-12 hours a day. That many was barely enough to allow them to feed their families. Shelter was whatever could be found to shield them from the elements.

The reminder for me was how blessed and spoiled I really am. Grapes brought back to mind my grandmother's stories about coming of age during the Great Depression. She remembers her parents and siblings living on a turnip sandwich for dinner; they were happy to have that much (or little.)

It's a work of fiction. Steinbeck was criticized by some as taking liberty with the facts. He and other defended the historicity of the book. Whatever the case may be, Grapes is true and accurate at it's core: life can be hard and the human spirit can endure the most horrible of circumstances.

The book reminded me how soft I really am. Could I survive a job loss? Could we live on one income? What would we do if we could no longer afford our home? What if we had to scale back all of our discretionary spending? I've whined and complained in the past about feeling like I was not getting ahead, about feeling "tied to a job," about having too much work to allow me to keep my weekends free. Maybe I should be thankful for all the many blessings I do have instead of railing about those things I don't have. Grapes, more than our current economic situation, has put that in my face, forced me to reflect on what is important.

I know (or hope) I'll never be the same again.

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