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Monday, December 21, 2009

In a little while, it ain't gonna be so bad. In a little while.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Grapes of Wrath is about family, love, sacrifice, struggle, and redemption. It chronicles the life of the Joad family as they move from Oklahoma to California after they're run off their land. Ma is the matriarch with a will of iron. Pa is strong and well-meaning, but secondary to Ma where family power is concerned. Noah, the oldest son, is a little batty and keeps to himself. Tom, another son, rejoins the family early in the novel, and acts as the functional protagonist. Al is a typical teenage boy who just wants to work on cars and get himself a lady. Rose of Sharon (Rosasharn) is their daughter in her late teens who's carrying a child. Connie is her husband (who has a few too many high-minded ideas). Ruthie and Winfield are the youngest children. Uncle John is their relative who lost his wife (and blames himself for her death because he thought she had a stomachache and she ended up dying). Grandma and Granpa are sweet and funny characters, and the preacher (Casy) who isn't a preacher any more tags along with the family on the journey out west. The whole pack of 13 starts off, and by the end there are only 6. Grandma and Granpa both die before the family finds work in California. Noah strolls off by a river and decides to stay and fish there for the rest of his life. Connie runs out on Rosasharn. The preacher goes to jail to save Tom (they got in a fight with a mean deputy) and then he is later killed for leading a strike at a peach farm. Al ends up splitting from the family to stay with a woman (Aggie) and Tom is forced to leave his family for their safety and his after he attacks a few men after watching them kill Casy. The family has a really rough time of it when they get to California. They live in a Hooverville, a government camp, on a peach farm, and on a cotton farm, but they rarely have enough to eat and the outlook is always very grim. At the end of the novel, there's a huge flood, and the family escapes to an abandoned barn (after Rosasharn gives birth to a stillborn child). The Joads find a boy and his father, and the father is dying of starvation. The boy begs the Joads to help, and Rosasharn closes the novel by offering her breast to the dying man.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

In terms of impressions, I really enjoyed this book. The ending depressed hell out of me (as Holden Caulfield would say) but I understood its necessity and appreciated its poignancy.

- When Tom comes looking for his family after he's been released from jail (oops! forgot to mention that in the plot summary, didn't I? Well, he went to jail because he got in a fight with a guy (before the novel starts) and after he gets stabbed, he smacks the guy's head in with a shovel. He gets paroled early for good behavior, and we first meet him when he's hitching a ride to get home to his family.) he brings a turtle for Ruthie and Winfield. He ends up letting it go, but asserts that every kid has a turtle at some point in life, but no kid can keep a turtle, because they have a way of running off. REMEMBER PALOMA, lexie and dinah? (For my other readers, we used to have a lovely turtle named Paloma. She ran away. I understand the irony of this statement.)

- There's a part in the book where truck drivers are contrasted with the migrants moving west. The truck drivers leave great tips at truck stops, whereas the migrants beg for food or for lower prices, which makes the truck stop workers angry. I wonder if there's a similar feeling today about truck drivers vs. the average traveler.

- I wanted to throttle Connie for running off on Rosasharn. Granted, Rosasharn is a little whiny and needy, but it was so sad that Connie claimed he would go to night classes, and save up money, and put Rosasharn up in a lovely beautiful home, and then he just up and left.

- We made Hoovervilles in social studies class in high school. They don't seem as fun or funny now that I've read this book. Maybe it should be assigned reading to go along with that activity.

- When Tom had to leave the family, I was so sad! And I was really angry at Ruthie (she blabs about Tom having gotten in a fight, and so he has to go. She's just a little girl, but still - how stupid can you be?) He tells Ma that he thinks maybe his soul is just a piece of a bigger one, (like Casy told him) and therefore, he'll be around all the time. Any time children "laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready" or when "folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build" he'll be there. I like this sentiment, but I would have liked it just as much if we could have had any idea what happened to Tom in the end. Alas, we are not to know!

- This book alternates between the narrative of the Joad family's journey and stream of consciousness chapters. I still don't know if I quite understand the purpose or the effect of those passages, but I think I liked them in the end. I guess they're to give us perspective from outside the protagonist family.

- Ma tells the family to "redd up the camp." I always thought "redding up the rooms" was a Pennsylvania Dutch saying. Maybe not!

- Ma is the true heroine of this novel. She holds the family together through thick and thin. She sacrifices her life and her memories without complaint. She lays beside Grandma in the back of the truck after Grandma has already died, and she doesn't tell anyone until they're safely across the border into California. She threatens her husband with a jack-handle when he makes decisions that threaten to break up the family. (Ha! I was just talking to Dennis about the way Steinbeck reuses words in the same sentence, with no fear of the redundancy of repetition. Guess it's catching on!) She is totally selfless, loving, and giving, and everything a good mother should be and is forced to be when her family is at stake. I must say, it was awfully refreshing to see such a strong female character at last.

- The nipple thing at the end of the book is a little bizarre, but I guess it speaks to the idea of common humanity and new beginnings. From tragedy (the loss of Rosasharn's baby) comes a continuation of life (feeding the dying man her milk) and a reference to a return to the start, to the beginning of life. What poetry there is in this.

- This book is about working with what you've got, not complaining about it, and always, always, always, helping others along beside you. It's a moral we can all stand to keep in mind, particularly at the end of this year of hard times. Don't forget - when you're down and out, reach out your hand. Someone is always there beside you.

On to Anna Karenina and Maine. Happy Holidays to all!

1 comment:

  1. how could I forget PALOMA?? oh what an era that was. if you want to talk about "the good old days" in terms of our life growing up, I think that was smack dab in the middle of it.