“A novelist who is also a true poet.”



I read this a short while ago for Banned Books week. It’s a deeply sad, though beautifully written novel which has stayed with me long after I finished it.

Briefly, the story follows the Joad family who have been forced to leave their small farm in Oklahoma at the time of the Great Depression because of the poor crop yields brought about by the Dustbowl – which leads to them defaulting on their bank loans and subsequent foreclosure.

They join thousands of other families travelling to California in the hopes of finding work – at least partly because they have been encouraged to do so on the promise of well-paid and plentiful work.

The first thing that struck me is the pride of this family who only want to work in order to live and who treat each other and their compatriots with much grace under pressure. It’s heartbreaking to read about them trying to keep the family together whilst desperately hoping to get enough money together not just to be able to feed themselves but to start a new life. Their dignity whilst coping with the very real threat of starving to death brings a lump to the throat.

The second thing that struck me was the indifferent cruelty of it all. The Joads are subjected to deceit, grasping greed, being taken advantage of in the most appalling ways, and exposed to threats and violence when they don’t move on because they are surplus to requirements.

Steinbeck alternates between long chapters telling the story in the first person, and shorter ones setting out his own thoughts and feelings on the issue. The first person is a good vehicle because it engenders empathy with the Joads and other families in the same position (though you would have to be made of stone not to feel sorry for them). The accent can be a little difficult at times but that is soon overcome and it delineates the difference in behaviour between the migrant families and those in positions of power over them sharply.

Reading this was not a happy experience but it was an educational one and made me appreciate just what a dreadful chapter in history this was.


Reviewed by:

Debbie McCarthy

Added 28th October 2015

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Debbie McCarthy