On Reading Steinbeck

Finally, I have finished reading The Grapes of Wrath. It was my second Steinbeck book after Of Mice and Men. For anyone who has been following this blog, you would know that I have been reading this book for over four months now. It took a great while, but as I mention to fellow book readers, The Grapes of Wrath was both massive and powerful. They say that Steinbeck was one of the greatest writers to come out of America. The others being Hemingway, Twain, and Greene. In my humble opinion, such greatness can be measured by the survival of literature over the ages. The Grapes of Wrath spells survival, through and through.

The Grapes of Wrath
Book Cover

Reading The Grapes of Wrath was anything but easy when compared to Of Mice and Men. It wasn’t the Ayn Rand kind of difficult, or even J.R.R. Tolkien’s dished out samples. It wasn’t tough for reasons such as word choice, construction of characters, or even plain visualization of the lay of the land. It was tough because it was like life itself – there is very little happening on a daily basis, but by the time you’ve finished and looked back, everything has changed so drastically. There are portions in the book when the Joad family is on the road and migrating to the West, and honestly, that’s all there is to it – getting into a truck and driving on. However, the little things that happen to them on their way – a flat tire, being cheated at a highway restaurant, the losing of members one by one, slow decrease of food supply, and even the yearning and silent thirst for flowing water – these add up to how the book ends.

I didn’t find myself feeling sad about the Joad family who is out on the road, looking for work in order to feed themselves. I found myself feeling hopeful that at one turn they’ll find work, or at the other they will find more bacon, and at another they would sleep well. Let me tell you, the Joad family did rest well at the government camp, and the joy that went through me when they washed with warm water was unbounded. It mattered to me, as much as it mattered to them that they washed well, ate enough bacon, and slept peacefully in a place that would reach out to them with extra sugar for coffee and hold a dance on a Saturday evening. And Ma, the mother of the Joad family, with her unyielding spirit, would dish out food for everyone who watched her cook, even the small children who she had never seen, and her own could go hungry if she shared. For me, Ma was the hero of the book. She never once crumbled, broke down, or called it quits. Not when her Grandma died in her lap, not when the food almost ran out, not when her son left, not when another son broke his face, and not when the shopkeeper turned her away with less meat than what her family needed. I wanted to hug Ma. I wanted to have her spirit. I wanted to be Ma. Nothing brought her down, not until the very end. And oh, that end!

What I also loved, and is worth tremendous notice, is how Steinbeck has dedicated full chapters on building premise and constitution of the book. The book alternates with chapters that take the story forward and the ones that build the story. These chapters – the one that build the story – I have exceedingly enjoyed. He has spent pages and pages just talking about cars and everything that goes into them, or cotton and their picking, or just plain soil. Yes, soil. The book opens with a chapter about a small turtle making its way across a desert in Oklahoma. Even if you are not sold on reading this gigantic book, I urge you to read that chapter. The simple writing evokes such a powerful visualization that it’s difficult to not see that tiny turtle. It really is.

A friend who has read The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden says East of Eden is Steinbeck’s best work. I have no doubts whatsoever. However, I think that for me, East of Eden is a read for the next year. I have spent far too much time reading this one book. What has made this book, and Steinbeck more special to me are these two articles that I have read about him on BrainPickings. One of them is a peek into Steinbeck as a father and a person. The other is his journal that he kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath in which he expressed his self-doubt. I don’t know more than this about Steinbeck, but I want to believe that he was a brave man. These two articles and this massive book point in that direction. One requires strength to be a writer. One requires strength to be a man. Steinbeck was as strong as they can get.

John Steinbeck on Falling in Love

“If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”

Working Days: The Grapes of Wrath

“My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were.”

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