The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

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The Grapes of Wrath (1939) is one of the classics of American and World literature, THE great novel of the Depression, and of course a great Road story, of impoverished farming family the Joads, and their journey from Oklahoma to California. It was made into a movie, one of the great movies according to Wikipedia, the following year. The image above, of the Joads’ ‘truck’, a 1926 Hudson Super Six cut down from a sedan and given a home-made truck body, is from the movie.

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1926 Hudson Super Six sedan

When I was a boy scout if we went on a troop camp – say 15 or 20 boys – our scout leader would take us in his farm truck with a cattle crate 16 ft long by 8 ft wide with 6 ft high slat sides, and we boys would sit on tents or on our bags with our backs against the slats, smoking Alpines, Camels, Viscounts, Marlboros, and it is this sort of roomy feeling I got reading (listening to) the book once again last week, but in fact the body on the Hudson wouldn’t have been much larger than the tray on my Hi-Lux ute – 8 ft long by 6 ft wide – and there were 13 Joads, counting the preacher and the son-in-law, some of them lying on mattresses (and at one stage Connie talks Rose of Sharon into having sex!). That’s awful crowded.

Don’t you think Rose of Sharon is a great name? Luckily I’m past the age of giving names to daughters or I’d have been tempted. It’s from the Bible, though apparently no-one is sure what flower it describes.

Everyone has read and seen TGoW I’m sure, but what struck me this time round was the number of trucks and the time Steinbeck takes to describe them. First up is a new diesel truck. Tom Joad, just of jail for killing a man, hitches a lift home.

For a moment the driver stared after him, and then he called “Luck!” Joad waved his hand without looking around, then the motor roared up and the gears clicked and the great red truck rolled heavily away.

I had thought most US trucks were petrol engined but I discover GM introduced the 71 series two-stroke diesel engines which I was driving in the 1970s, in 1938.  And Mack too had diesel powered trucks back then.

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1938 Mack Type 75 (I think)

Not much later Steinbeck introduces a roadside cafe by describing two drivers – a long distance two-up team – chatting to the woman behind the counter. Their truck has a sleeper berth “high up, behind the driver”. I can’t imagine what their truck was (maybe Melanie/GTL’s father can tell me), but they did exist, as these images show.

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I’m sitting in a roadhouse (Wingfield, Adelaide today) waiting for work and using Google Books to look up quotes. It’s hard to know what phrases to search on but the scene in the cafe brings up this, which resonates:

He’d go nuts just settin’ here and the road sneakin’ under the wheels. Fella said once that truck skinners eats all the time – eats all the time in hamburger joints along the road.

I owned and drove old trucks (20 or 30 years newer than these in build if not in design), Inters, Atkinsons, AECs, Leylands on long distance and Austins and Bedfords on local, so a lot of what Tom and Allan put up with is familiar. I never cranked a truck though I think we could crank our old Prefect and Granddad used a blowtorch to heat up his single cylinder Lanz Bulldog tractor, then a big flywheel to turn it over, with a deep bop-bop-bop that would send me running out of the machinery shed and down the track to the house.

When a big end bearing fails on the road the boys drop the sump (oil pan) and swap out the piston. I’ve done the same more than once, though not with secondhand parts from the wreckers as they did. I’m fascinated that they were able to get the replacement piston up past the crankshaft and into the cylinder, holding the piston ring tight with bronze wire which melted when the engine fired up. I’ve always had to remove the head – which means a new head gasket – and put the new piston in from above.

Enough trucks? The Grapes of Wrath is a Realist novel, following in the tradition of Zola and Jack London, not just describing the poor but explaining how they are cheated by the rich, the banks and the big landowners. ‘Conservative’ governments again and again allow the banks to create credit on the back of low quality paper, and again and again the paper – often junk mortgages – fails, the banks fail or at least withdraw credit, and so businesses relying on credit fail. Here the businesses are small farms, 40 acres – tiny by comparison with Australia where my grandparents’ selection in the Mallee was a square mile, 640 acres – many of the farmers already reduced from owners to tenants by years of drought, and with the coming of mechanized ploughing the banks force the people off the land causing a great wave of migration from  Oklahoma and surrounding states to the land of milk and honey, California. Only there, the banks and land owners are squeezing the little guys too, using their ownership of canneries to force down prices and ruthlessly underpaying the great influx of farm workers.

So the migrants are hated. Even workers in employment can’t afford to spend. Big business profits skyrocket while the economy stagnates. If it all sounds familiar that’s because it is. While the middle class is prosperous Capitalism seems benevolent. But it never lasts. Does it?

Interestingly Steinbeck alternates the Joad’s story with chapters of general description, economic theory, or illustrative stories with unnamed characters. And it works. Do you think the novel has a central protagonist? Sometimes I think it is Tom and sometimes I think Ma.

Ma is certainly the most interesting character. She says to Tom senior (her husband), you can give me a few whacks when you’re doing your job, supporting the family, but now we’re down and out, I’ve got to step up, assert control, and if you try and give me a few whacks now you’ll find I’ll be whacking back.

The Joads never get on their feet in California, the old people die, Noah, Connie, the preacher leave. Eventually Tom is forced to leave. But the novel ends with a flicker of hope, or at least of life-goes-on. Al settles down with his girl, and Rose of Sharon, her baby still-born, brings a near-dead man back to life.

 

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, first pub. 1939. Audiobook: Hachette, read by John Chancer

26 thoughts on “The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

  1. I’ve read this book 3 times. It is one of my favourites. Growing up in Michigan in the 50s and 60s my grandparents used to talk to me of those who went across the country in the depression and my father used to talk about his large family coping during the same time. There is a certain amount of nostalgia I feel with Steinbeck’s books. Thanks for sharing your version.

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    • I hope my version wasn’t too idiosyncratic. A lot of unemployed Australians went on the road, but we didn’t have internal migration as the US did. Mum’s father and his brothers hung onto their wheat-sheep farms though mum recalls plucking wool from dead sheep for pocket money.

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  2. I’m afraid I’e never read this novel. I tried it once – decades ago – but couldn’t get into it and I somehow formed the impression that Steinbeck wasn’t for me. But then I read Mice and Men for a book club and went onto read Cannery Row (superb as an audio by the way) – and both were brilliant. So now I am gearing up to read the biggies.

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    • It’s definitely a biggie, 18 hours of audio. I enjoyed the excursions into philosophy- and I don’t remember that in Of Mice and Men – but it does pad the book out a lot.

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  3. I read this when I was quite young and forming my political opinions, and it shocked me. This was a time when American TV depicted nothing but wealth and success, and Steinbeck showed how it was all a mirage.

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    • Yes. Me too. But I don’t think I internalized it fully back then. There was a feeling that rapacious capitalism was behind us, when of course it was just waiting until there were enough Dries in government to re-loosen the rules.

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      • I don’t think we foresaw how globalisation would move work offshore to people working in conditions we wouldn’t tolerate, and then the rise of the gig economy. But we should not forget the role of the consumer: every time anyone buys cheap clothing from Asia or a $5 uber pizza they are cooperating with an unfair system.

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  4. I almost died when you asked if we were tired of trucks! Because I wasn’t! Yes, the sleeper cabin above and behind in a semi is common in the U.S., and we have diesel vehicles all over the place. They were actually quite popular to purchase during the Great Recession circa 2008 because at the time diesel was cheaper than regular unleaded. I also know that bop-bop-bop sound. Rural areas like to have old-timey tractor shows with the fly wheels. It sure is a loud sound, so I’m not surprised you headed for the hills! My grandma used to take me to the Buckley Tractor Show every summer, and I would get “Buckley” and the year burned onto a piece of wood. That’s Americans: cutting down trees to bring them back inside one slice at a time.

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    • Melanie, you astound me. I know you’re way out in the mid-west but I never picked you for a farm girl. I think every child should grow up with access to farmer grandparents.

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      • My great-grandfather was a farmer. My grandfather hate the farm. It was hard work and his mother literally tried to kill him several times, so he ran away from home at 16. When I was growing up, I honest to goodness (like, way into high school) thought access to college for non-wealthy people was a NEW thing because my people struggled to finish high school. My grandfather then worked for the road commission most of his life before he retired and then started a dragline buisness with my dad. We’re more people of the dirt that straight-up farmers.

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      • Did your dad teach you to operate the machinery? Much as I love the land I am jealous of people who have a natural feel for mechanics (Al Joad, I think, discusses this), it would have made my life as a truckie much easier.

        Mum and I were discussing education last week. Her parents left school at 14 and her 4 siblings at 15. But one of granddad’s sisters had gone on to teachers college and that’s the path mum wanted to take, till she ran away to get married at 17.

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  5. I haven’t read this novel for years… no, decades. My last visit was probably 25 years ago when, early in my relationship with the guy I’d end up marrying, he suggested we see a play (Grapes of Wrath). What I didn’t know at the time was that he didn’t care for theatre much but loved this story. One thing has changed since then – I’ve converted him to theatre and we see a good part of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s offerings each year.

    And as for the trucks – I loved them! (who else can I rely on to do a thorough and accurate analysis of trucks relevant to books?).

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    • I’ve never warmed to theater- it’s too easy to see the acting rather than the story. If I was ever home I would see more bands, comedy, ballet, Gilbert & Sullivan, in that order I think. But then again those aren’t Milly’s preferences so I probably wouldn’t.

      I’m glad you enjoyed my excursion into literary trucking. It won’t happen too often, though I’m often motivated to look up cars when they’re mentioned in old books.

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      • It’s opera and theatre for me and in both cases I like to see how the producer interprets the story (which is why I would happily see the same opera over and over again). I also love seeing bands – bid stadiums or pubs, doesn’t matter, I enjoy the atmosphere when a group of people are singing along to music together.

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  6. Well, there are many comments here about books, trucks
    …but I want to mention how well you write!
    I was swept away by your enthusiasm for all-that-is-trucks and
    found it a great way to blend the stark message of the book with the
    hard life “on-the-road-again”. Kudos, Billl…I wish I could write like this!
    PS Ma is the best character, I agree.
    I just finished Lesley Williams book “Not Just Black and White” (review soon) and
    had to think of Lesley (…lkke MA)…who also ‘had to step up’ to save her family from financial ruin.

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    • Thank you for those kind words Nancy. ‘They’ say write what you know, so that’s what I do. Good thing you and a few others enjoy it! I found it interesting that Steinbeck chose Ma to be head of the family in adversity, something that Miles Franklin for instance would emphasise too.

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  7. Well, finally I’m catching up with my backlog. I love Steinbeck, and have always thought I’d like to re-read this one. The last biggie of his I read was East of Eden, and that was probably 20 years ago! But those novellas – or the two or three I’ve read, anyhow – are good too.

    I too enjoy your truck approach.

    And, for us, our favourite performances are music and ballet/contemporary dance (Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney Dance Company, Australian Dance Theatre), followed by theatre. Liked opera once but not so high on the agenda these days.

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    • I’m glad trucks haven’t worn out their welcome, yet. I’ve read East of Eden and Of Mice and Men that I can recall. At the library last week I saw and impulse borrowed Woody Guthrie’s House of Earth which I think is a similar period and political slant. Hope I get time to read it.

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      • The blurb says (where have I heard that before?): “Finished in 1947 and lost to readers until now [2013]…. the moral urgency and narrative drive of Steinbeck.. the erotic frankness of DH Lawrence”.

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