The BBC’s 100 Best Books list (the list I am reading through) is heavy on 19th century British authors, which in turn makes the stories therein loaded with tales of 19th century England. It’s sensible that the lion’s share of English Literature would be written by English authors, and specifically not American authors. My British co-workers joke that we don’t speak English; we speak American. And I laugh and make jokes about The Queen, but I know there is truth in that statement.
While this is all very sensible, as a consequence I don’t connect deeply to these stories nor to the characters. I came to The Grapes of Wrath with the unconscious expectation to encounter another story with little bearing on my experiences. I was shocked to find that this book is about my family.
The Grapes of Wrath is set 1930’s. It describes the experiences of poor tenant farmers being driven from their barren dust bowl farm in Oklahoma to California in search of a way to make a living. The story centers around a family and their journey, all the while telling a narrative around the effects of the industrialization of food production.
And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses. – The Grapes of Wrath
The characters come alive with regional accents and colloquialisms. They are proud and hard-working. They are self-reliant and resilient in spite of the challenges they face. They are driven to desperate acts by the compulsion to survive.
There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. – The Grapes of Wrath
My dad was 42 when I was born, and he was the youngest of my grandmother’s nine children, which explains how so many years exist between our generations. My grandparents were poor tenant farmers in rural north east Ohio. My grandmother was 36 in 1930. They moved from one rented farm to another, only to find the house dilapidated and the land exhausted.
My grandmother used certain phrases, phrases that K-12 schooling has scrubbed out of use. Mayhaps. Mayhaps, I will go to the store. Haint so. The characters in The Grapes of Wrath are my grandmother. They are my great aunts and uncles. They are cousins and extended family. But the stories diverge. My grandparents were lucky. They would probably call it God’s will. Since they lived in Ohio, and not The Dust Bowl, they managed to get food on the table during The Depression. Through incredibly hard work they were able to feed themselves and get enough extra to keep on their land. My dad and his 8 siblings supported eachother and the family such that they all got college educations. By the time my grandmother died at 100 in 1994, she was living in a home of her own. This isn’t now The Grapes of Wrath ended.
The Grapes of Wrath is about the human toll that’s taken by the relentless progress that capitalism demands. Hordes of humans are grist for that mill. This issue is just as relevant today as it was when this book was written. In the book, migrant farm workers who balk at shrinking wages are called reds. Occupy Wall Street supporters balk at minimum wage and are called socialists. The most remarkable thing is how little has changed.
Income inequality in America. Unsustainable.
“Why, you’re Joe Davis’s boy!”
“Sure,” the driver said.
“Well, what you doing this kind of work for-against your own people?”
“Three dollars a day. I got damn sick of creeping for my dinner-and not getting it. I got a wife and kids. We got to eat. Three dollars a day, and it comes every day.”
“That’s right.” the tenant said. “But for your three dollars a day fifteen or twenty families can’t eat at all. Nearly a hundred people have to go out and wander on the roads for your three dollars a day. Is that right?” – The Grapes of Wrath