Back in high school English class, we read “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck. At the time, I remember thinking how old the book seemed, in terms of the language the characters used, and also how much the character Lenny’s mental slowness frustrated me.
I think that in my young mind, I was invested enough in the story to feel empathy and frustration at the behaviour of the characters, but back then, I couldn’t really evaluate the story or the writing – I just reacted to what I experienced in the book.
I’ve read “Of Mice and Men” again a couple of times over the past three decades, most recently a year or two ago. As I did, I began to enjoy Steinbeck’s voice, style and depictions very much indeed. So I decided to finally crack open “The Grapes of Wrath”.
My Dad and the Great Depression
My Dad was born in 1921, and as a young kid, knowing that he grew up during the Great Depression had always fascinated me. I used to ask my Dad what it was like for him, growing up in Prince Rupert back in those days. He’d tell me stories, like the times when he and his brothers would go down to the docks and ask the fishermen to give them their leftover fish heads. Dad said that his Mum would cut the cheeks out of the fish heads and make the family a nice fish soup.
I’d ask him if his family were poor, and he’d say no, but they weren’t rich either. His Dad worked for the Prince Rupert Telephone Company, most often splicing cable, up on a telephone pole, soldering cable with a little blow torch. Times being what they were, he shared his job with another man, working different shifts. In a house with five kids (Dad, his three bothers, and one sister), and with their Father working only part-time, I’m sure the Love family of Prince Rupert had to tighten their belts a bit. Still, there were still lots of trees for the local Mills, and still lots of fish in the sea, even if the economy had gone to crap. Everyone in the Love family worked, kids and all. Dad always impressed upon me the importance of working for a living, and the value of a dollar.
The Grapes of Wrath
During the Great Depression, times were tough for Dad’s family, I’m sure, but I would learn in Social Studies class that other families had it much worse during that time, particularly farmers, and especially in the United States.
That is the setting of Steinbeck’s major novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”. The Joad family, Oklahoma sharecroppers for generations, are wiped out when the “dustbowl” (drought) wipes out their crops, and they become too far in debt to the bank. Their little farm, along with many others in their area, are taken over by the bank, and turned into industrial farmland. So, the whole clan (Grandparents, Parents, and brothers and sisters ranging from preteen to adult) head West with all their possessions strapped onto the back of a jury-rigged truck.
Along the many thousands of miles journey west to California, they enounter cold, heat, starvation, death, violence, kindness, cooperation, prejudice and eventually, some forms of redemption.
If you’ve seen the movie by John Ford, you’ve got a little taste of the story, but only a little. The novel is so much more than the movie. Steinbeck takes you into the hearts and minds of each of the family members in turn, over the course of a journey that must have only been a few months chronologically, but experientially was much more difficult than the miles traveled and the days spent.
Here are a few of the significant themes from this incredible novel:
- The Mother is the provider of life, the supporter, nourisher and guide; the centre of everything. The sheer amount of work and responsibility that Ma takes on daily impressed me throughout the story. To a lesser but still significant degree, Rose of Sharon represents the mother, being pregnant and on the edge of bringing new life into the clan.
- Rose of Sharon and her Grandparents also represent the frailty – and sometimes the futility – of survival.
- Tom Joad is the angry young man, fighting against injustice, and suffering because of how his fighting spirit and moral outrage places him potentially at odds with the capitalist farm owners.
- Pa Joad and his brother represent the impotence and powerlessness of the old male generation – still able-bodied, but wracked with guilt or turoil from many challenges, and with their family authority essentially tossed aside and taken over by others. This represents how the former sharecroppers had their authority or rights taken over by larger interests.
- Communism (or Socialism) vs. Capitalism.