I expected to hate this book. Of Mice and Men was really overwhelmingly “meh,” and I’ve never had a particular fondness for American literature. So when I cracked the spine on this one and found that I was actually really drawn in by Steinbeck’s prose and the story of the Joads, I was sort of blown away with delight.
First, let me preface this by saying that, as a former literature major, I am the type of person who simply must read the introduction. I can’t skip it. It’s just not possible for me. The fact that this introduction was 46 pages long was really irritating to me, because I was ready to jump straight into the story. However, if you read this book, I recommend reading whatever introduction might be included, no matter how long. It really helped with the reading of the book to learn so much about how he wrote it. For instance: I learned that Steinbeck spent years researching the book, spending time among migrant workers in run-down camps, learning what it was like to live their lives. He began several projects about the plight of the migrant worker before he finally sat down and wrote The Grapes of Wrath start to finish in a matter of a few short months. The introduction also prepared me for the structure and style that he wrote the novel in, and knowing that gave me a better appreciation for the novel.
Because there are so many things in this novel to potentially talk about, and because this is not a college essay, I will briefly mention some things I loved, and allow you to decide if you feel it is worth reading.
- The prose is a work of art. Even the dialogue,written in a very thick country dialect, has, at times, a surprisingly lyrical quality to it:
- “She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build laughter out of inadequate materials….She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall.”
- “Funny thing how it is. If a man owns a little property, that property is him, it’s part of him, and it’s like him. If he owns property only so he can walk on it and handle it and be sad when it isn’t doing well, and feel fine when the rain falls on it, that property is him, and some way he’s bigger because he owns it. Even if he isn’t successful he’s big with his property. That is so.’
‘But let a man get property he doesn’t see, or can’t take time to get his fingers in, or can’t be there to walk on it – why, then the property is the man. He can’t do what he wants, he can’t think what he wants. The property is the man, stronger than he is. And he is small, not big. Only his possessions are big – and he’s the servant of his property. That is so, too.”
- “But you can’t start. Only a baby can start. You and me – why, we’re all that’s been. The anger of a moment, the thousand pictures, that’s us. This land, this red land, is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us. We can’t start again. The bitterness we sold to the junk man – he got it all right, but we have it still. And when the owner men told us to go, that’s us; and when the tractor hit the house, that’s us until we’re dead. To California or any place – every one a drum major leading a parade of hurts, marching with our bitterness. And some day – the armies of bitterness will all be going the same way. And they’ll all walk together, and there’ll be a dead terror from it.”
- The story is important. More important today than it was back then, I would argue. I saw in this novel a primary document that describes the beginning of the decline in quality of our food in this country. When Big Ag began to take over, and the little guy got bulldozed or run off his land. By reading this novel, you are witnessing the course of history changing, ad you can still see its effects today.
- The structure of this novel is unique and keeps the story rolling. Each long chapter detailing the story of the Joads is separated by one or two chapters that described the larger situation in some way. These short, descriptive chapters set the scene for the migration from the Dust Bowl to California, or provided details of the squalor of Hoovervilles. They show the similar circumstances which forced families from their homes, or the underhanded dealings of the car salesmen who provided the broken-down trucks which they used to travel west. Steinbeck wrote these chapters in a very fable-like way, often using grand and mythic language to describe something truly awful.
This novel is beautiful. It’s full of sorrow, sacrifice, determination, love, and pride. It is the story of an American family who refuses to break. In some ways, it almost seems a precursor to the dystopian, post-apocalyptic novels that are so popular now. The Joads must face every obstacle with ever-decreasing resources, and dwindling hope. But their story is an inspiring one, sad as it is, and I highly recommend this novel to readers young and old.