John Steinbeck's great novel deals with common human themes—the struggle for a sense of place, collective identity, the brotherhood of man, virtue in the face of oppression. It follows the westward migration of Midwest farmers during the Dust Bowl by way of the Joad family. It's a celebration of the human spirit, an indictment of injustice, and a prose poem to the earth and people of America.
Tom Joad is everyman. Fresh out of prison for killing a man, Tom finds his family's farm abandoned—the banks have kicked all the farmers off their land to make way for the big corporate farms. Tom finds his family, and they go west to California, the Eden of the new America. Life is just as difficult there, and when Tom Joad again becomes a refugee he has to leave his family behind, but not before promising to always help the oppressed and needy when he finds them.
Steinbeck loves the people and the land of the United States; he sees an unbreakable link between them. Much of the confusion and embitterment felt by the migrant workers has more to do with their new sense of displacement than it does with their poverty. They were poor before and they are poor now, but before they had dirt to call their own and to give them identity. Their identity in California as undesirable Okies leaves them disenchanted and lost.
They don't look for money or rank or land, however—they want dignity, honor, and love. Nothing makes this more apparent than the shocking, beautiful ending. Steinbeck is funny, graceful, sad and moving as he tells a story familiar to many Americans, the story of oppression overcome by the diligence of the oppressed. Winner of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize, The Grapes of Wrath is as immediate now as it has ever been.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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