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The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I was stunned by the quality of this 1939 novel, I could not have guessed at strength both of the writing and the message it gave me. Set in the depression of 30's America it is a powerful and gripping read - goodness knows what the shockwave must have been when it was written in 1939. I realise that it was banned as too controversial in many states - I was stunned by it in places so what vested interests must of made it in the places mentioned in the book is anyone’s guess. It concerns poor farmers driven off their land by a viscous combination of drought, share cropping (growing cash crops usually cotton for the part owners of the land then getting part of the profit - if any), debt from unrealistic lending by banks as part of a wider plan to own vast areas of land so it can be turned over to cotton. Eventually their farms no longer supply a living and the banks foreclose making them homeless. They are simple farmers and many see California as a land of plenty that waits with open arms. Cruel landowners there needing cheap almost slave labour advertise in the debt and drought stricken areas of Oklahoma thus encouraging those poor desperate people to take to the road in a dreadful trek to a supposed promised land. These are the facts that frame this stunning novel - Steinbeck spent time in some of the roadside camps the thousands of disposed people flooded to as their hopes of a new start in California were dashed when they realise they are unwanted and abused as slave labour. Reviled as dirty thieving people abused as “Okies” many died of starvation and disease, a tragedy that influenced writers like Steinbeck to speak out.I was genuinely moved by the plight of the characters, the sheer weight of circumstance building against them is heartbreaking. Poor but proud they hope for salvation but their hopes a cruelly dashed. Steinbeck in one of the most heartrending novels I have read intricately plots the descent to almost starvation and death never flinching from gritty realism that shocks now let alone over 60yrs ago. The sheer excellence of the smallest detail – from cooking in a roadside camp to trying to repair the old worn out vehicles they use (after being swindled when purchasing them) is a testament to one of Americas foremost novelists. Grim it is but fantastically readable – unputdownable is a cliché I can use here and not be wrong. The superb and almost unbreakable spirit of the farmers as they desperately try to work in awful conditions where they aren’t given money but vouchers they can only use in the landowners own shops. Its hard to think this was actually happening in the 1930’s in the USA but it must remembered that the US is a very young country as we know it – this kind of tied labour was made illegal in the UK in the middle of the 19th century with the Truck Acts that required payment in coin only. The indifference of their countrymen to their plight with a few exceptions must have upset a lot of people at the time and the banning of it in some places (looking back from now) was inevitable. A grim read indeed but a marvellous one at that – a quality of writing that some modern novelists can only hint at. I was stunned and shocked in equal measure but at the same time marvelled at the power and quality of the writing. The ending is as shocking as anything I have ever read in a modern novel and must have served as a wake up call to US society then – in fact the novel I believe has many lessons about tolerance and standards in a caring society for us even now 60yrs later. Brilliant and shocking in equal measure this novel must be on any readers list – if only as a benchmark against which other authors work is judged.


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