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16 December 2010

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grape of Wrath by John Steinbeck is the Great American Novel. The story uses one family to tell of the awesome migration of 250,000 people from the middle of the US to California at the end of the Depression.

Farmers in the middle of the country owned the land their forefathers had gotten through the homesteading acts. But as times were tough, they slowly borrowed money from the bank against poor crops. Eventually, the banks owned all of the land. So when the banks decided to collect the land and make huge farms that could be plowed and planted by one man on a tractor, farmers and their families were forced off of the land.

At the same time, business practices in California - where the land was also owned by banks or very large landholders - advertised across the country that they were looking for workers to pick cotton/peaches/grapes. The more people who responded, the lower they could pay in wages as there would always be some hungry enough to work for any hope of food.

In The Grapes of Wrath, one family is followed from their farm in Oklahoma on their way to California to find work. When Tom Joad gets out of jail after four years, he finds his family's farm abandoned. The house is leaning to one side and appears to have been push over by a great force. Cotton is planted right up to the front door. An old neighbor who is passing through tells Tom about families being forced off of the land by the tractors and that his family is at his uncle's farm about to leave for California.

Tom joins his family and together the 12 of them plus a family friend pile into a newly purchased truck with all of the belongings they cannot leave behind or sell. Both Tom and his brother Al have some mechanical knowledge to keep the used truck running if they can afford parts.

What follows is the heart-wrenching tale of a family - that always thought of itself as being part of the land - set adrift with the hope of finding a new home. With no land to hold them together it will be a battle to keep the family intact.

Steinbeck has long been haled as one of the Great American Authors and this book is an excellent example of why. Though the pace of novels has increased through time, this novel holds its own in terms of plot, characterization, and suspense. Though history determines that the Joad family will not have an easy life - readers will be up late hoping that they beat the odds. Reading The Grapes of Wrath is like learning the roots of American as it is today and watching a train wreck in slow motion all tied up into one astounding novel.

Steinbeck, John. (1939). The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin Classics.

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