Who doesn’t know this famous picture of a Migrant Mother of the American Dust Bowl? It could be the icon of John Steinbeck’s famous novel The Grapes of Wrath, which I read in the autumn of 2009; 60 years after its publication date (1939), which was also the year that my mother was born. It came to be my favourite read of 2009 — something I would never have expected!
Set during the Great Depression preceding World War II, the novel focuses on the Joad family, farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, and changes in the agriculture industry. Because of their hopeless situation they set out for ‘The Promised Land’ of California, along with thousands of other Okies in search of land, jobs and dignity.
Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66 — the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from Mississippi to Bakersfield — over the red lands and the grey lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.
66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight. [p.108]
This quote vividly evokes the story of the east to west migration in the US during the Great Depression. The paragraph above is followed by an enumeration of places along the road and it strongly brought to mind the 1946 song that I came to know decades later, thanks to one of the best pop groups of my teenage years, Depeche Mode: Route 66.
The Grapes of Wrath was banned (and even burned) several times. Though I absolutely not agree with it, of course not — the very idea, I can understand see how that happened: there’s a lot of swearing, violence and carnal stuff in it, plus an apostate preacher, Jim Casy. I read the book in Banned Books Week — and what did I think of it?
Well, I had a hard time getting into it. The paperback has a small font on thin pages so it reveals itself to be quite a chunker when you open it for the first time. The spoken language needs a bit of getting used to. But my biggest problem was that the chapters alternate between the (interesting) story of the Joad family and some sort of epic story telling that I couldn’t figure out — and bored me a little at first. Was it the (ex-)preacher preaching? Sort of a ancient Greek choir commenting on events? An omnipresent character? Biblical, mythological? Eventually I decided it must be the oral tradition of history — I could picture the poor travelers meeting around a camp fire at night; neighbours and friends for just a short time.
And then suddenly the machines pushed them out and they swarmed on the highways. The movement changed them; the highways, the camps along the road, the fear of hunger and hunger itself, changed them. The children without dinner changed them, the endless moving changed them. They were migrants. [p.259]
But after a while the story really got under my skin. It made a huge impression that still lasts, even after a few months. I believe it is a great truth that the less people own, the more they’re willing to share. That reminds me of a television program in Holland about hospitality ;)
The attitude of Western Americans was often repulsive.
Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and so miserable… They ain’t a hell of a lot better than gorillas. [p.203]
It almost made me swear out loud.
But of course, those people were scared too…
I copied whole pages in my notebook because I wanted to remember them. Better buy a copy of my own eh? Since this one was a Random Act of Bookcrossing Kindness, sent to me by boekenxnl. I’ll pass it along as soon as I’ve finished writing this review!
Now, on a side note: I was wondering who made the cover of this 1970 Penguin Modern Classic edition. I couldn’t find it in the book details, nor anywhere on the web. What I coincidence that I went to an exhibition on Edward Hopper and his contemporaries in the Rotterdam Kunsthal, where I came face to face with a painting by Ben Shahn (1898-1969) that immediately reminded me of the cover image! Because of the style, and of its subject: Social Realism (or social-documentary). The exhibition note explained that the artist used to make a photo first, which he later developed into a graphic work.
I figured it would be very appropriate to use a work of art by Shahn as a book cover for The Grapes of Wrath, because during the Great Depression he traveled and documented the American south alongside photographers like (among others) Dorothea Lange, who made the picture of a Migrant Mother that you saw at the beginning of this post. What a great discovery to make!
You can guess how proud I was of myself — until I accidentally found out that the blurb on the back mentioned that “it is a detail of a poster by”… Ben Shahn. DÔH. Well, I would like to say in my own defense that I usually never read the back cover because I want to know as little as possible about a book in advance. And in the end I just forgot. But yes, I admit I must be the dumbest person in the whole wide universe. Still, it’s fun to have figured it out all by myself ;)
Except for Hopper’s painting Railroad Sunset the rest of the exhibition actually was a bit of a disappointment. An Edward Hopper expo is no Hopper expo when his most famous painting Nighthawks isn’t there. But of course that picture doesn’t belong to the Whitney Museum of American Art, the institution that put the show together with works out of its own collection.
Back to The Grapes of Wrath. A minor point of critique is that the women in the story are horribly subdue. The following quote doesn’t show that for a 100%, but it made me go BWAAAGH ;)
Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great if their men were whole. [p.7]
But I guess some ‘male dominance’ was normal in those times (& that place) and so Steinbeck is being realistic. But then he talks about Jule, who’s partly Native American:
Tom and Willie and Jule the half-breed sat on the edge of the dance floor and swung their feet. [p.327]
Each time Jule makes an appearance this ‘half-breed’ fact is mentioned. That irritated me — and I got the feeling it wasn’t because Steinbeck happened to be such a great observer, but maybe because that was how he approached Amerindians himself. Or am I terribly wrong??
Thirdly, the poor migrants were at times too good to be true. But these things aside: I am SO glad that I have read this classic!
Btw if you’re interested: I stumbled upon a (really) short article about one of the daughters of the Migrant Mother…