Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh
chris_walsh

A journey in prose: "The Grapes of Wrath"

Reading John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, a story of my country having a very hard time, while my country (and most of the world) is having a very hard time, is...something.

I finished the book yesterday. It was my second read, after reading it very fast in high school. Back then, I'd gotten behind and needed to read it by a certain day to discuss it in class, so I worked out the pace I needed to meet. One hundred pages a day. That was maybe the first time I'd had to read a book that fast for school. (I'd read The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams similarly fast before this, but that was for pleasure...and for me to feel better during a weekend when I felt lousy emotionally.) I made it, and was relieved I had, and much of the book's tone stayed with high-school me. Still, I knew to revisit it someday. That day came in January 2021.

(Factoid: by sheer coincidence, this is the third year in a row where early in the year I read a Steinbeck work. A year ago I read Cannery Row; a year before that, I read Travels with Charly.)

I took a few weeks. Taking my time, plus reading aloud and savoring certain passages. The book is, as many of you know, often poetic, sad, angry, and overall, honestly beautiful. About, of course, an ugly, difficult era, ugly mainly because of people screwing things up. Bad farming practices leading to the Dust Bowl; prejudice against the people who left the middle of the country to try to rebuild their lives in California; and Powers That Be making conditions in California worse for people. Sometimes deliberately.

And during all this, Steinbeck did such an amazing job humanizing the often not very articulate people of his story, people who are trying to survive a trying time. It's a story of small kindnesses, when people were overwhelmed by events. If you did a modern-day film, I could imagine doing one with quick vignettes away from the Joad family, showing other travelers and "Okies" dealing with the difficulties that the Joads avoided, then return to the Joads and the difficulties which hit them. And a modern film could show just how truly all-encompassing the dirt of the Dust Bowl was, in ways that photos of the time can't quite capture the way that Steinbeck's prose did. I read the early passage

The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.

and

When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards. Now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air.

and I'm reminded of the times my region has been swallowed up by smoke from fires, and the flat surreality of how things looked outside my window. And think of how the Dust Bowl was bigger and worse and, in its own ways, surreal and hard to grasp.

Some classics don't really stay classic. The Grapes of Wrath stays so, immensely.
Tags: books
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