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Thursday, October 30, 2008

THE GRAPES OF WRATH


My friend, Carol, is a great re-reader, something I do rarely. But my recent re-reading of Steinbeck's monumental 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, moved me in ways I never expected. Almost 70 years after its initial publication, The Grapes of Wrath remains contemporary, politically astute, and skillfully artistic. If anything, the passage of time and the way history provided the finishing touches to the story increases its already inestimable value.

This is a sad story. Nature, economics, greed, and human nature run amuck, and the result is incredible human misery. This is an uplifting story. Moral courage, perseverance, a set of values, and an understanding of how human beings can lead purposeful, good, compassionate lives result in the belief of the strength of the human spirit.

Steinbeck pulls out the stops. His novel is the narrative of people forced from their land to wander and readjust to a new world that is cruel, destructive, and uncaring. At times it might seem a bit preachy, but most of the narrative is moving and descriptive. A reader is drawn into the action and longs to see how each character reacts to his life's circumstances.

As a writer, Steinbeck pulls out all the stops literarily. You don't need to recognize his art to feel the power of the novel, but his allusions are fun to discover--like pieces of a puzzle. You might miss Steinbeck's art altogether because his skill makes everything blend seamlessly, but he does employ all the literary techniques that add depth and meaning to his work--should that be what you're looking for. My favorites here included the intercalary chapters--those chapters not about the Joad family but about "all people," the words of the characters that hint of bigger meanings as when Ma Joad informs Tom, "...we're the people..." perhaps as a reminder to insensitive government of the words of the Declaration of Independence, of the unmistakable use of symbols and analogies to other stories like the Exodus and the Myth of the American West. Don't be put off by any of this. Grapes of Wrath is an eminently readable book. It’s a great and moving story.

Take Grapes of Wrath away with you on a trip. It will involve you, delight you, horrify you, offend you, and make you pause to consider what your mind's eye is seeing. And when you're done, rent the 1940 (imagine--book to movie in less than a year) John Ford movie starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. You won't be sorry!

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