Tuesday, December 17, 2019

the last book I read

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
O-OOOOOOH-KLAHOMA where the wind comes sweeping down the plain
Where the wavin' wheat can sure smell sweet
When the wind comes right behind the rain
Um, well, yes, but in fact *record scratch noise* it's not quite like that in the mid-1930s. Sure, the wind comes a-sweepin' down the plain, but there ain't no rain, and consequently there ain't no wheat either. And those of you with first-class degrees in agricultural science and wheatonomics and farmology and the like will realise that that's BAD NEWS for the hordes of tenant farmers who depend on the crops to be able to feed and clothe themselves and pay the rent on their homes. Bad news for the landowners as well, of course, but they have the resources to absorb some misfortune of this kind, and in some cases it provides a convenient excuse to evict the tenants, demolish their dwellings and massively expand and mechanise their farming operations.

Tom Joad hasn't been doing a lot of the old farming lately, since he's been in prison for killing a man with a shovel in a fight. Freshly released from the state penitentiary, he's hitch-hiking his way across Oklahoma to get back to the family farm. When he arrives, having hooked up with ex-preacher Jim Casy on the way, he is surprised to find the family home abandoned and derelict, and it's only by a chance encounter with a neighbour that Tom discovers where the family have gone - over to Uncle John's place to gather up their possessions ready to make the great trek west to California, a green and luscious land of opportunity where the fruit fields stretch off over the horizon and there are jobs for everyone.

Once Tom has had his emotional reunion with the family, thoughts turn to loading up the family truck with as many of their possessions as it will hold, plus a dozen or so people. This done, they set off down the road, immediately realising that thousands of others are doing exactly the same thing.

Those of you with first-class degrees in geography will know that the United States is a pretty big place, and the route from Sallisaw, Oklahoma where the Joads live to Bakersfield, California where they end up is a little over 1600 miles, with some pretty big mountains in between. No mean feat in an overloaded jalopy, and it takes several weeks, with much rough roadside camping on the way. By the time they get over the state line into California the party has been depleted somewhat: both Grampa and Granma have died on the journey, Tom's elder brother Noah has decided to wander off and seek his own fortune, and Connie, fiancé of Tom's sister Rose of Sharon (universally referred to as Rosasharn by family members) and father of her unborn child has decided that he doesn't really fancy being a Dad and snuck off into the night.

The remaining Joads soon make the inevitable discovery that while there is indeed fruit and vegetables and cotton that need picking, there is also a massive influx of people like them desperate for work, and therefore not only is work scarce and a strict first-come-first-served policy is in operation, but some basic economics dictates that those offering the jobs are able to brutally slash the wages being offered, on the grounds that if you don't want to work at that rate, there are a hundred hungry desperate people in the queue behind you who will.

Of course a man's thoughts turn at this point to notions of worker solidarity, mass withholding of labour and things like that. This is a risky train of thought, though, as the authorities are brutally repressive of any activities which smack of GODDAMN COMMUNISM, and economic reality once again dictates that there will always be people desperate enough to break a strike and take the wages being offered anyway, as the Joads themselves do at a peach farm, largely through their own ignorance at what the people lined up outside the fence are shouting about.

Tom is a bright lad, though, and soon puts two and two together by talking to some of the protesters outside the farm, but in doing so gets involved in a fight with the authorities trying to clear out the protesters and clubs a man to death in making his escape. Once again the family is forced to move on hurriedly, concealing Tom in the back of the truck. They eventually find work picking cotton, but Tom can't work because he has to keep himself hidden to avoid detection, and Rose of Sharon can't work either as her baby is nearly due.

Eventually Tom's cover is blown and he has to leave the family. Rose of Sharon's baby is stillborn, and the winter rains begin, ensuring that there won't be any work for at least three months. As the abandoned box car where they've been living is about to be flooded, the Joads head off on the road again, this time on foot.

Sooooooo it's not exactly a barrel of laughs, this, but, a bit like One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, it's actually a bit less grim and more uplifting than you might imagine. Family bonds, the unbreakability of the human spirit, the urge to help others even when you have little or nothing to give yourself, that sort of thing. What it also is is a book clearly fuelled by righteous anger at the relentless oppression handed out to the Joads and their kind, and an impassioned appeal for a system of government that didn't allow this sort of thing to happen. A lot of people interpreted this as being a manifesto for GODDAMN COMMUNISM at the time, although that didn't prevent it becoming a multi-million-selling publishing phenomenon when it first came out in 1939.

It is entirely coincidental that I was reading this during the period of the 2019 general election, but there's no escape from the historical echoes in the choice facing modern-day voters. Clearly Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn agreed with me as one of his immediately pre-election tweets featured him and his cat perusing a copy of the book. You can skip actually zooming in on the watch as instructed as a) nothing very exciting is revealed and b) it's sadly all a bit academic now.

The Grapes of Wrath was garlanded with most of the major literary awards when it was first published, including the National Book Award (previous winners on this list include The Moviegoer, The Wapshot Chronicle and The Corrections) and the Pulitzer Prize (so you can add it to the list here). It also appears on the TIME magazine 100 novels list that many previous entries on this list (a non-comprehensive list is here) appear on. All that was also presumably a key factor in Steinbeck being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, although it has since been revealed he was something of a compromise candidate and the academy were a bit unsatisfied about the whole thing. It was also almost immediately made into a film, starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.

None of that stuff really amounts to a hill of beans in this crazy world, though, except in that it's indicative of a wide recognition that this is a major work of 20th-century fiction, a view with which I heartily concur. I am almost certain that my Pan paperback copy was one of the large stash of books I acquired at a 30% discount on leaving my job in the Town Bookseller in Newbury back in the early 1990s (On The Road was another, and I think possibly Midnight's Children too). I strongly recommend that you don't wait 27 years to read your copy.

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