Review: The Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of WrathJohn Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Books, 1939 (original edition), 2002 (this edition).

Summary: Steinbeck’s classic narrative of the migrations of displaced farmers from the Depression Dustbowl to a California controlled by large landowners who wanted their labor as cheaply as possible while despising the influx of people.

I’m not sure how I escaped reading this book in high school. I first discovered the genius of Steinbeck in East of Eden and have been reading his other works since. I think I would probably rank this second in greatness to East of Eden of Steinbeck’s works.

The story line breaks into roughly three parts. First there is the displacement of small and eventually tenant farmers to big land-holding interests using lower cost mechanized methods that eliminated even the tenuous grip of these farmers on their way of life. Most dramatically, this is portrayed as a cultivator demolishes part of the Joad family home, making it unlivable. The second part is the migration of these families to California, where handbills advertise plentiful and good paying jobs picking California crops. The Joads, with Tom, their recently paroled son, Al, the skirt chaser who keeps the truck running, Rose of Sharon, their pregnant daughter and her husband Connie, Ruthie and Winfield, the two younger children, Ma and Pa, Grampa and Granma and Jim Casy (disillusioned preacher and eventual labor organizer) all pile on the truck with whatever belongings they can fit. We see the struggle to keep run down vehicles going across the desert, and the toll this takes as Grampa dies enroute and Granma as they arrive.

All this sets up the third part where we see these migrants unwelcome and constantly threatened by the police fearing vagrants, the terrible conditions of the Hoovervilles, and the exploitation of landowners who recruited these migrants so that they could continually cut the rates of pay as desperate people would agree to work for less and less, as families like the Joads struggle day to day to survive and fend off starvation. Most harrowing is the winter, when no work is to be had and people start dying of pneumonia and starvation.

Throughout the novel, Steinbeck uses an interesting device of narrating the tribulations of the Joad family against the larger fabric of events they represent that helps us understand the desperate straits many families faced. We also see the cruel ways the rich and powerful exploit them every step of the way.

The standout character in the story is Ma, who keeps the family fed and together when the men and her daughter are at sea in the bewildering maelstrom of the Depression and the exploitation of the destitute. In some ways, Tom Joad, who killed one man at the beginning of the book, and another later in sudden outlashings of wrath represents the simmering rage these conditions foster, captured in these words of Steinbeck that allude to his title:

“and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Steinbeck raises for us the question how long an underclass of people can be exploited and oppressed until wrath is unleashed upon a society, a question as relevant in our own day with its growing disparities of wealth and poverty, as in that of Steinbeck. It seems there is this idea that as long as men hold on to wrath, they won’t be broken.

Yet in Steinbeck’s novel, it is the value of family and of human decency in desperate circumstances that shine through again and again, represented by Ma. It is Ma who permits the shocking break of convention in the final scene to do what can be done to save a human being.

All this suggested that while wrath may accumulate and threaten like an approaching storm, the deeper and more powerful quality that truly bestows dignity on human beings is neither overweening power, nor accumulated grievance, but a compassion, a simple human decency, reflected in Ma, and in the government-run camp, that does what can be done, and somehow is enough. The novel raises for each of us the question of what kinds of measures will we choose should we face desperate times.

The Month in Reviews: April 2016

The Warmth of Other Sons

My reading this month ranged from rain to a runaway girl by the name of Rifqa (how is that for alliteration!). I reviewed Isabel Wilkerson’s account of the unheralded immigration of Blacks from the south to the north and west in the twentieth century, and a pair of novels by management guru Peter Drucker. There was the usual collection of more “theological” works, including one on the theology of Jonathan Edwards, future directions in biblical interpretation, a biblical theology of that unusual book in scripture, Daniel. I began the month with several shorter but thoughtful books on the paradoxical relationship of strength and weakness, different ways of fasting over forty days, and a book on the psychological motivations of religious striving. Finally, I revisited one of my old favorites by C. S. Lewis. So here are my review summaries with links in the title to the publisher’s website, and at the end to my full review.

strong and weakStrong and Weak, Andy Crouch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. Explores two qualities that we often think opposed to one another and argues that strength and weakness are paradoxically related and that human beings flourish to the extent that they can appropriately exercise strength (authority) and weakness (vulnerability) together. Review.

40 Days of Decrease40 Days of Decrease, Alicia Britt Chole. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2016. A collection of 40 readings, reflections, and different kinds of fasts that encourage us to “thin our lives to thicken our communion with God.” Review.

16 Strivings for God16 Strivings for God, Steven Reiss. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2015. A new psychology of religious experience that argues that religions enjoy such a wide embrace because they offer repeated opportunities to satisfy sixteen basic motivations or “strivings” common to all human beings. Review.

future of biblical interpretationThe Future of Biblical Interpretation, Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm, eds. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. A festschrift for Anthony Thiselton exploring from different perspectives the tension between plurality of interpretations of the Bible, and responsible hermeneutics. Review.

The Warmth of Other SonsThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Vintage, 2011. The story of the great migration of blacks from the South to the North and West between 1915 and 1970, told through the lives of three of those migrants and their families. Review.

With the Clouds of HeavenWith the Clouds of Heaven (New Studies in Biblical Theology), James M. Hamilton, Jr. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A study of the biblical theology of Daniel, including its structure, key themes, how the book influences both early Jewish literature and the New Testament, and how it connects to key themes throughout scripture. Review.

DruckerThe Last of All Possible Worlds and The Temptation to Do GoodPeter F. Drucker. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2016 (forthcoming, expected publication date June 14, 2016). The two novels of management guru Peter Drucker, the first of which is an interlocking tale of the lives of bankers and aristocracy in pre-World War I Europe as they face an impending meeting, the second a tale of an act of kindness by a Catholic college president that goes horribly wrong. Review.

screwtape lettersThe Screwtape LettersC. S. Lewis.  New York: Macmillan, 1962 (Link is to current edition). The classic collection of letters between a senior demon and junior tempter charged with undermining the new found faith of his “patient.” Review.

Jonathan Edwards Among the TheologiansJonathan Edwards among the Theologians, Oliver D. Crisp. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015. By comparing Edwards writing on various theological themes, Crisp underscores Edwards work as an original thinker and constructive theologian, building on a Reformed base, but even pressing the limits of orthodoxy in some of his work. Review.

RainRain: A Natural and Cultural History, Cynthia Barnett. New York: Broadway Books, 2015. An exploration of this elemental reality on which our lives depend, how we have tried to control it, produce it, predict it, protect ourselves from it and how it has shaped our lives and how we are shaping future rainfall. Review.

Hiding in the LightHiding in the Light, Rifqa Bary. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2015. A memoir of Bary’s turning from Islam to Christianity during her teens, her flight from her family when she feared for her life, and her subsequent struggles to prevent the courts from forcibly returning her to her family. Review.

Best of the Month: I’ll give the nod to The Warmth of Other Suns for this eloquent chronicle of the largely untold story of the migration of Blacks from south to north and west in response to Jim Crow racism and how it changed both the migrants and their destination cities. It helped me understand in new light the dynamics of race that became a growing issue in my and many northern cities during the years I was growing up.

Quote of the Month: I can’t resist some C.S. Lewis here from The Screwtape Letters:

“He is a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or onlylike foam on the seashore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at his right hand are ‘pleasures for evermore.’ Ugh! I don’t think He has the least inkling of that high and austere mystery to which we rise in the Miserific vision. He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least–sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side” (pp. 101-102).

Reviewing Soon: One of the classics I’ve never read and am currently enjoying is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, another migration tale of farmers escaping the 1930’s dust bowl for dreams of a better life in California. I’m reading an intriguing book on how our physiology enables us to connect with God and serve others titled What Your Body Knows About God. In this political season there are a couple political books: Randall Balmer’s Faith in the White House on faith and politics from the Kennedy through Bush II presidencies, and Ask the Questions on why religious clarity is important to ask of our political candidates. And along the lines of recent reading, I will be reading Jose’ Orduna’s The Weight of Shadows on immigration and displacement, and Benjamin Watson’s Under Our Skin on addressing our racial divides.

The Month in Reviews is a great way to see all the books reviewed at Bob on Books. Just click on “The Month in Reviews” on the menu to access review summaries going back to February 2014.