On my self-assigned course called “Books I Should Have Read Years Ago,” I recently finished Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I’m not going to write about the characterizations or images or plot, because I think they’re all pretty straightforward and I think it’s easy enough that pretty much anyone could read it, so I think it’s justifiable how frequent it’s listed as required reading.
What interests me about The Grapes of Wrath is how hopeless the situation of the Joad family seems to them, and indeed how hopeless it becomes. I won’t spoil the ending image because it’s exceptionally powerful and I count myself fortunate that I managed to run in the circles I’ve run in without hearing the ending before I finished it myself. Suffice to say that the Joad family manages to steadily lose or have taken from them everything over the course of the novel, and find themselves destitute and helpless by the end.
The reason I find this interesting is that their helpless situation represents a low point in a string of highs and lows throughout history, and one that is more or less caused by the previous high. Farmers irresponsibly farmed wheat where it didn’t belong, resulting in loose soil that was picked up by the plains’ high winds and the Dust Bowl, which resulted in cataclysmic crop failure at the first major drought. Things were not helped by the Great Depression, and migrants from the Dust Bowl found little relief when the moved to California.
As I was reading Grapes, I tracked down Ken Burns’ recent documentary about this very subject, The Dust Bowl, and I highly recommend it. I think that the testimony of the people who lived through the drought, and of the people who left the Bowl for California is a bit colored by the fact that they managed to live through it and stay together: some of the stories of the people who moved to Northern California is almost wistful no doubt because they were lucky enough to find work and a house to rent. Seeing that as one reads the terrible conditions in The Grapes of Wrath‘s Hooverville results in a bit of dissonance But then again, the Joads don’t come from the Dust Bowl Proper, so the conditions they left weren’t as bad as a lot of that documentary’s subjects, so it’s a give-and-take.
Anyway, back to my area of interest, what I really like about Grapes is that it reveals the ebb and flow of prosperity throughout history. I know just enough about history to know that a few years after its events, a time of bittersweet prosperity comes about in America comes about in World War Two, followed by the baby boom and even more prosperity (for some people, this is still pre-civil rights). Followed by turmoil and recession in the 60s, followed by prosperity in the 80s and 90s, followed by more recession in the 2000s and 2010s.
It’s a reminder that, as bad as things look now, change is on the way.