The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck was another reread for me – I read it as a teenager and then again at age 49. I enjoyed it as much this time as when I read it 30+ years ago and was just as indignant at the policies, practices and behaviors of those who held the money. And I ached for the families who had to pack up and leave their homes and who met cruelty and heartbreak as they tried to resettle. It’s such a beautiful book with a fundamental message of decency, published in 1939.
I couldn’t help but think “there but for the grace of God …”. Whether you are religious, spiritual or neither, I think we can all appreciate that there is an element of grace or luck or something involved in our life experiences. Some people seem to get slammed by misfortune after misfortune while others seem to glide through life relatively unscathed. One of the things I love about reading is realizing how fortunate I have been and am today. Hopefully, it makes me more humble and appreciate the generosity I have experienced in life.
The fundamental importance of treating people with dignity and respect comes through so strongly in this story. Not because people may otherwise rebel or protest or commit a crime, but because it is just the right thing to do. To ignore the basic needs of people – food, shelter, hygiene – is to dehumanize them, which is one of the most appalling scenarios I can imagine. I worked in a soup kitchen for about 6 months when I was about 30 years old and taking a break from graduate school to consider my options. This was a profound experience and made me understand that some of the most meaningful things we can do are also the most simple. Yet, how often are people we meet on the streets unable to meet the necessities of life?
The greed of the wealthy people in the story is nothing short of disgusting. They are preserving what they have. At that basic level, we might be able to understand their reaction. But this was more than a desire to maintain their property. The willful and intentional destruction of food when people are starving is criminal. Descriptions of people dumping chemicals on food that cannot be sold for a profit or food that would bring down profit margins were difficult to read. The practice of paying men to enforce the status quo through violence and aggression so that a few individuals may live in luxury was just painful. The whole system was designed to bring out the worst in people and give them power and control over others, resulting in complete destitution of families. I was only reading about these poverty-stricken families but it brought out some very vengeful thoughts in me! I wanted someone to pay for the cruelty. It is unsettling to have those feelings. Where is the line between wanting to take the moral high ground and wanting to avenge the suffering of others?
The descriptions of people dying, either because they lost the will to live or because they literally don’t have enough to eat made me feel ashamed that this could happen to people. Yes, this particular family was fictional, but these experiences happened. That this was allowed to happen was shameful. The relative ease in which the Californians turned against the Okies was a tale of caution. The migrants were considered by some to be a sub-species! That it continues to happen in this country and around the world shames us all.
Balanced against this was the hope and generosity of many people who had lost so much. The families in the camps who shared what they had with others were inspirational. There was one scene where children had nothing to eat and the Joad family made the soup or stew go a little further. When they had nothing material to share, then kindness at least made people feel human again.
So much of this book is sadly still relevant – the immigration debates, the health care debates, the economy’s impact on families … and on and on. Remembering our shared humanity and the need for basic decency is important for us all – poor, wealthy and everyone in between. This book is a beautiful reminder that everyone matters and their suffering hurts us all. I gave the book 5/5 stars both times I read it.
Note: The Dust Bowl is an amazing documentary by Ken Burns that profiles the environmental catastrophe resulting from drought and agricultural practices and economic policies during the 1930s. Even though I knew the story, I was stunned by the severity of the dust storms and health issues experienced by families across a huge region of the country.