On the first Monday of each month at 6:30pm, I take part in the First Monday Classics Book Club at the Orange County Library in Hillsborough. April 3 will be the second anniversary for our group. We’ve covered a broad range of classics by authors such as Austen, Dostoevsky, Twain, and Cervantes, and now we’re getting ready to tackle one of the most acclaimed American novels, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
In choosing to focus on classics, this book club inevitably runs into a problem of definition: What, exactly, constitutes a classic? One of the criteria I look at when proposing books for the group is that the novel has a timeless quality, that the topics under discussion are just as relevant today as they were at the time the book was written. The Grapes of Wrath is nearly 80 years old, but as I’m rereading it this time I keep being struck by the sense that the novel could have been written today as a commentary on current issues.
To begin with, the novel is about the consequences of man-made climate change. The dust bowl was partly caused by poor farming practices that turned once fertile soils into barren dust. The Joads and thousands of other families are forced from their land as their crops fail. But even if the dust bowl draught years had never come, the novel makes clear that the Joads’ way of life is doomed by another force: technological advance. With big combine harvesters, a single man can work hundreds of acres that once required the labor of dozens of men. Yet another force of social change that will seem relevant today is that distant banks run by people the Joads will never meet decide their fate. There’s no one local to blame, no one to personally appeal to for another chance. The faceless world of finance doesn’t judge you by your character or your needs, only by whether or not you can pay.
Once the Joads reach California, they become migrant farm workers, facing the problems that still bedevil migrant workers. Employers need to hire hundreds of able hands for a few weeks, but after that the workers must move on. As people without homes, they’re treated as potential criminals by the locals. And not without cause, as Tom Joad, Steinbeck’s primary protagonist, is a convicted murderer violating his parole by leaving his home state. I admire Steinbeck’s courage in choosing Tom as his vehicle for exploring these difficult themes. It would have been tempting to make the central character a saint. That this far more complex character still earns our sympathy shows the depth of Steinbeck’s skills.
Of course, it’s possible to appreciate this novel without once thinking about how the problems faced by the characters are echoed in the modern world. The language of this novel is powerful in its clarity and beauty. Steinbeck’s ability to create a scene, to make you dwell inside a single moment, is something few writers can match. Near the beginning of the book he devotes an entire chapter to a turtle attempting to cross a road, turning an event most people barely notice into an epic tale of determination. This is the third time I’ve read this book, and on this pass I’m taking more time to step back from the story and simply appreciate the beauty of the words.
If you’ve appreciated this book in the past, or are considering reading it in the near future, please feel free to join us at the library at 6:30 on April 3. I can promise a lively, thought provoking discussion on a truly enduring classic.