Let me tell you why this book is important to me. Let me tell you first how I came upon my copy. When I first attended the meetings of our book club, I brought an Anais Nin book with me for the book exchange. One of them, the moderator Jzhun, expressed interest in it. He showed me the little stack of books that he brought for the exchange, then I chose this.
Tina, now one of the moderators, heard my choice and said, oh, serious books. Well, that sealed my reputation in our book club: a reader of serious books. I don’t mind that at all, but I sometimes flinch when I hear it because people might expect me to always have luminous thoughts on every book that I read.
And then a couple of months later, Atty. Monique and I read this book together. Book buddies was a hit fad then; there was always a pair or more reading books together. So yes, we made the reading plan and prepared for the struggle of reading a serious book.
So the book is important because through it I found book buddies. And enough of that already. I am drawn to this book because of its title. There is something forceful in the choice of words. I like grapes the fruit, but when you say grapes of wrath, my taste buds tingle, expectant of some utterly sour flavor to flood them. And wrath is too strong a word. And why grapes? Why not apples or oranges?
The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; 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.
This novel is about the Joad family. Set during the dust bowl tragedy, it tells us the journey and struggle that the family undertook from Oklahoma to California. Why that journey? The unforgiving land of the midwest would not yield anything despite the seeds sown into it. People’s loans are defaulting, families’ houses are being sold back to the banks. There’s nothing left for them to do except eat the dust until they die.
But all is not lost. California, on the west edge of the American bowl, gleams like a bursting sunset filled with dreams of orchards heavy for picking. The Joads hear of this and take the chance; they sell everything that they have to take that journey in a persistent jalopy, a term that I first encountered here. And while they are on the road, they realize that everyone in their town, in their state, and in the surrounding states, are flocking and filling up the interstate roads.
Will they manage to settle in a new house? Will they manage to find jobs? Will they manage to get food?
Unfortunately, no one in this novel is going to sit down a comfortable sofa with a plate of oatmeal cookies and a glass of warm milk. The most luxurious thing that they will experience in California is a federally funded resettlement camp. It will do, but it is not much. So what happened to all the hopes and dreams, the fruits heavy for picking?
The landowners are threatened by the overwhelming arrival of migrant workers. They fear that they will take over the land that their ancestors have worked hard to acquire. So what they do is that they hire these migrants at impossible wages. There are just too many people who need jobs to feed rumbling stomachs, so they take these impermanent jobs. It is abusive and inhumane for the landowners to wreak more misfortune on the dispossessed migrants, and the circumstances are added weight to the already unmovable burden that tests their sense of self-respect and dignity.
And no, the problems do not end there. Family structures shift, and the smell of death strengthens after each page. One just can’t help wondering if these people will have a break. They have all the right to be angry; their cup is filled to the rim, threatening to spill over anytime. Sooner or later, the anger will be released. It is long overdue. The divide between the landowners and the migrants will have to be redrawn.
And through all these circumstances, the Joads still manage to reach out to their fellow starving people and give whatever that they can to help them fend off hunger further. What is good about this novel is that it does not attempt to be overtly sentimental. Everything is narrated with stark realism.
The universality of the novel’s theme is magnified further in the way the novel is structured. The chapters alternate between cinematic stories from around the town to focused stories about the Joads. This makes the reader view the story through a camera that first rolls up the sky, then swoops down low, then captures scenes here and there, and then finally settles on a fixed angle inside the Joads’ household or jalopy.
It takes a lot of skill to perform this alternating chapters thing. The same is true with recording a now almost forgotten part of the American history. And before I forget, I want to share one more thing: my favorite character in this novel is not one of the Joads, but a random old turtle.