I’ve read two other Steinbecks, Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row, and I really enjoyed them both. The subject matter in his novels, typically people struggling to get by in the Great Depression, isn’t really something I find myself craving, but once I start reading I can’t stop. I’ve only read these few novels, but he’s slowly becoming one of my favourite authors.
At the beginning of this novel, Tom Joad is let out of jail on parole and returns to his family home, only to find it abandoned. He learns from his old neighbour that the banks evicted everyone from their land, replacing tenant farmers with mechanised agriculture practices, leaving thousands with no work and no place to live. This novel was Steinbeck’s angry response to the greed that cause the Great Depression after hearing the stories of these poor families. Tom Joad meets with his family, and they set off to California after hearing that there may be fruit-picking jobs there. Thousands of others do the same, and the situation becomes more and more hopeless. Those without homes can’t find work, and if they do it’s not for a fair wage, and the residents of California are now having their jobs taken and their wages undercut by these displaced farmers, which obviously creates a lot of conflict between the two groups.
“[…] But them sons-a-bitches at their desks, they jus’ chopped folks in two for their margin a profit. They jus’ cut ’em in two. Place where folks live is them folks. They ain’t whole, out lonely on the road in a piled-up car. They ain’t alive no more. Them sons-a-bitches killed ’em.”
Steinbeck writes some of the most vivid and fully realized characters I’ve ever come across. In just a few paragraphs, the reader is already starting to understand what they’re all about. His dialogue is a large part of it, and he does that brilliantly, but a lot of it is just the little touches in observations or actions that manage to speak volumes about how they think. You’re interested right away, and you care about them, so it doesn’t take long to get invested in the story.
Every now and then there’s a short chapter that is a complete tangent. It might be a description of Route 66 or a lyrical monologue from a used car salesman, and it’s in these chapters that it really jumped out at me how fantastic a writer Steinbeck was. Finding random chapters that read like writing exercises when I want to find out what’s happening with our characters is something that would normally drive me insane. I typically hate that, but I loved these side-passages. They were so beautifully written that it was just a pleasure to read, and they really expanded the reader’s understanding of the country’s situation. I particularly loved the car salesman chapter. It felt like something Tom Waits would write, which does makes sense as they have some parallels – quintessential American artists and voices for the downtrodden. I really wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Waits is a fan of Steinbeck.
“I ain’t gonna baptize. I’m gonna work in the fields, in the green fields, an’ I’m gonna be near to folks. I ain’t gonna try to teach em nothin’. I’m gonna try to learn. Gonna learn why the folks walks in the grass, gonna hear em talk, gonna hear em sing. Gonna listen to kids eatin’ mush. Gonna hear husban’ an’ wife a-poundin’ the mattress in the night. Gonna eat with em an’ learn.” His eyes were wet and shining. “Gonna lay in the grass, open an’ honest with anybody that’ll have me. Gonna cuss an’ swear an’ hear the poetry of folks talkin’. All that’s holy, all that’s what I didn’ understan’ All them things is the good things.”
There is a lot going on in this novel. It’s about a family with no home, a preacher with no faith, an expectant mother with no future, a father with no power, and a country full of people with no hope. It’s heartbreaking knowing that families went through such a thing, asked to leave their lives behind them to wander aimlessly, looking for any work they could find. Steinbeck’s writing really brought it all to life, and Dylan Baker’s amazing narration of the audiobook brought it to a new level. Hearing the dialogue spoken the way it’s meant to be spoken, for someone who isn’t that familiar with the accents of the southern US, was a real treat.
I really loved this, right through to the haunting final sentence. I think my next Steinbeck will either be East of Eden or Travels with Charley.