Centered around literary controversy and criticism, The Grapes of Wrath, written by John Steinback has been one of the mostly widely spoken about and famous books since it’s release in 1939. Set in America in the depression era of drought and unemployment, at the time of the great horrendous ‘Dust Bowl’ tragedy, the book tells the story of the plight of migrant workers of the period and the suffering and desperation faced by them. The novel is a bold representation of Steinback’s personal views on communism, equality and rights, the importance of family and fellowship, and last but not least, it implores it’s readers to experience and question the depths of man’s inhumanity.
The story begins with the release of Tom Joad, a moral philosophical and survivor weathered by the injustice of the times, from a state facility after serving a four year sentence for manslaughter. On his journey home, Tom meets an old friend by the name of Jim Casey, who has renounced his religious ways and beliefs for a bigger and deeper consideration – that god is in love, and religion is only a love and respect for all humanity. Jim Casey, as readers will see, is the main advocate of Steinback’s theories and views and are graciously played out by Casey throughout the story.
On arriving home, Tom learns from his neighbor that his family was driven out of their farm by the bank and are staying with a certain Uncle John. When he finally arrives at Uncle John’s house, he finds his family in complete despair, preparing to leave for California, the glorified ‘Land of Dreams’ in hope of finding work and getting their lives back on track. From this point on, the story follows the family on their journey through California, describing all it’s shortcomings and misfortune, it’s desperation and despair to give it’s readers a real dose of the reality of the situation at that point in time.
The Joads begin their journey, and enroute they come across a migrant couple, the Wilsons, whose car has broken down. After helping them, both the families decide to travel together. Granpa Joad, a bitter and whiny old man, dies while the family is on it’s way to California, followed shortly after by Granma Joad. Sadly, Sairy Wilson falls very ill as well and cannot continue her journey, at which point the families separate and the Joads continue onward alone.
On their journey to California the Joads find the highway full of dilapidated cars stuffed with the few remaining belongings and dreams of the people, all traveling towards California with the dream of finding employment. They are told by a migrant they meet along that journey that the situation in California is turning increasingly worse with the huge influx of migrants, and jobs are now starting to run short. However, the Joads continue on, determined to fight the situation of the times and find a higher ground for themselves.
The Joads shift from one location and job to another, encountering several problems and misfortunes along the way. They stop initially at a rundown and miserable migrant camp called Hooverville. On being provoked by a suppressive police officer who tries to dismantle a union operation being organised by the workers, the men get into a heated argument and Casey knocks the officer unconscious, at which point he is arrested and taken away.
The Joads move on to avoid any unnecessary trouble, and find shelter in a government camp, which proves to be a comfortable option for a while, but not enough to sustain the family forever. Knowing they have to find proper employment, the family moves on in search of better work, which they find picking fruit at a farm in California, only to learn that they are being employed to break the strike of migrant workers fighting against wages that are not even sufficient to provide a man a full day’s meal.
One day, Tom Joad is reunited with Casey, who has been organizing an uprising of laborers against the ruthless landowners and employers of the region. Casey is accosted and killed by a policeman in Tom’s presence, who in retaliation, kills the police officer. Fleeing the scene, the Joads run away and take habitation in a cotton farm, while Tom hides out as a fugitive in a cave only to be brought his daily meals by his mother. However, his little sister Ruth gets into an argument with one of the girls at the camps, and threatens her by revealing that her brother is hiding in a cave after having killed two men. Fearful for his life and freedom, Tom’s mother advises him to run away, which he does.
The story closes with the beginning of the monsoon which signifies end of the cotton-picking season, and along with it, employment. As the banks flood and the family tries to move to safer ground, Tom’s sister, Rose of Sharon, gives birth to a stillborn child. When the rain subsides the Joads find shelter in an old ramshackle barn, where they find a little boy surviving with his dying father, who hasn’t been able to keep down any food for days. The end scene is one of the most disturbing and highly controversial components of a book, where Rose of Sharon, on discovering that she is still bearing milk that is no longer of use, breastfeeds and nurses the old man back to health.This scene is the most volatile depiction of the desperation and helplessness of the people of the depression era, and creates a gut wrenching and soul provoking end to the story.
Although Tom Joad is the main character of the story, Jim Casey is the character whose presence dictates the essence of the story told by Steinback. Casey is a representation of the fight against injustice and unemployment, and against the self-preservatory interests of employers and the land owners of the era.
Casey’s renunciation of his preacherly ways and his loss of his calling are of huge significance to the story. His understanding and acceptance of humanity and mutual respect despite contradictory oppositions to the preaching of religion teach the readers a very valuable lesson regarding god, love, and blind faith. His fight against injustice and ultimately his death signify the futile and relentless battle of people throughout the ages against the unfair inequality and unethical exploitation of worker around the world.
The story of The Grapes of Wrath holds a deep meaning in values such as hope in a time of darkness, dignity in the face of wrath, and belief in the fight for a better life. Exposing the self interests and inhumanity of the landowners in California was a major part of the book’s controversy and one of the reasons why it was widely criticized and hated, as well as banned in some parts of California.
The audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath is wonderfully narrated and perfectly curated, and the story will make the listeners soul ache with relativity to the plight of the people of those times. Having hopes built up and broken constantly will be something that the listeners will experience and share with heroic migrants, through the vivid descriptions of the book. Intertwined with little mini-stories in the form of filler chapters, the Grapes of Wrath is not only a personal, first-hand description of the times and the fight of the people, but also a must listen for anyone who enjoys a good, descriptive, yet valuable story!