I’ve read plenty of books with anti-capitalist themes, but not one has been so fantastic as John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath. It was unexpectedly post-apocalyptic, at times funny, and it brought the finer points of my pro-worker politics to light. This, I thought, is perfect. This is why I feel the way I feel. Today, more than 75 years after its initial publication, the plight of the Joad family and the events surrounding their exodus continue to be relevant.
A few weeks ago, I didn’t expect to finish The Grapes of Wrath. I was tutoring a rising 9th grader who could not have been more disinterested in the work we were doing, and who practically refused to read the book because he found it boring. Even though I wholeheartedly believe his attitude will get him nowhere in his education — One cannot, after all, only read the books one enjoys and expect to succeed. — I do believe that the book is one of those unfortunate titles taught at what is, for many students, the wrong time.
There’s no time better to learn about the darker side of our world than in early adolescence, when children can be inspired to make a difference, and are not so set in their ways that they will ignore any hard evidence that contradicts their beliefs. However, the sad fact of the matter is that most students aren’t capable of understanding the gravity of The Grapes of Wrath at 14-years-old, and many teachers — particularly young ones — aren’t well-equipped to help children identify what, exactly, is going on in the novel. For example, you can give students Chapter 5, and I’m sure they’ll sense the desperation and outrage of the tenant farmers, but they won’t be able to put a finger down and say, “That’s the Theory of Alienation!” And how many of our overworked, underpaid educators will be able to identify and teach the same?
Don’t think I’m knocking the individuals who file into school buildings, day-in and day-out, to teach our children and mold them into upstanding citizens. I’m not. It’s just that reading such a wonderful treatise on community and capitalism makes me wonder how many high school freshmen are actually getting the full dose of meaning and nuance in The Grapes of Wrath.
But on to lighter subjects. Reading The Grapes of Wrath, more often than not, brought The Stand to mind. The Joads’ cross-country journey is full of peril and loss. When anyone breaks off from the herd, you know they won’t be seen again in this world. There is a sense, with every new character added, that they will be the family’s undoing. Despite the novel’s positive rendering of migrant communities as open, accepting, and helpful, I couldn’t shake the thought that anyone met on the road could be a coiled snake, waiting to strike.
That’s putting my own experience to it, however. Nothing in The Grapes of Wrath suggests that the poor are out to get others who are impoverished. Rather, all of the peril is external. It’s the police, the guards, the capitalists that the proletariat have to fear. Acts of God are unfortunate and strike at the most inopportune moments, but the unfairness of the anti-migrant prejudice in The Grapes of Wrath is blatantly and unnecessarily cruel. Steinbeck presents the discrimination from both sides, forcing readers to examine their own presumptions about others, and to realize that, whenever we judge our neighbors, we have not read their histories as we have the Joads’; our own statements, then — about people of other races, creeds, and economic classes — may be just as unjustified as those directed at the migrants.
The Grapes of Wrath is brilliantly relevant today, at a time when racism and anti-immigrant bias are still so pervasive that presidential candidates can remain in the running after calling Hispanic immigrants rapists and thieves, or after suggesting that “[i]mmigration without assimilation is an invasion.” For those of you who haven’t yet read the novel — or who remember it only as a book about a family migrating from Oklahoma to California — as well as those of you looking for your next group read, I can do nothing but encourage you to pick up this book. The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most discuss-able novels I’ve ever read, and it’s well worth the few hours it will take you to read it.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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