–Edit March 21/12 – I wrote this on the third and apparently I hit “Save draft” instead of “Publish” because it was still sitting in my draft folder. Ah well. You can enjoy it now.
Freedom to Read Week is wrapping up today and the only book club I’m in reads nothing but banned or challenged books, so it’s a good time to be writing about one. John Steinbeck’s seminal work was the book we’d picked this time around. If you’ve never read it, go get yourself a copy. Seriously.
The basis of the story, for those who are unfamiliar: Tom Joad has just been released from prison and is on his way home to rejoin his family. Unfortunately, his family’s already left the struggling farm they’d been living on in Oklahoma, forced off the land by circumstances beyond their control: the Great Depression. Tom runs into an old family friend in the meantime, a preacher by the name of Casy, who’s long since given up on the notion that a god gives a damn about what’s going on in the world. When the two of them hear that the Joad family has probably gone to stay with Uncle John, they hurry over; the Joads have decided to head for California like so many other desperate families and Tom and Casy arrive just in time to join them. There are thousands of jobs there — at least, that’s the rumour that gets everyone through their days. Are they ever in for a surprise…
The first half of the story features the Joad’s hard and tense trip west, interspersed with additional chapters where Steinbeck elaborates on the situation as a whole. It was good he put those in there so readers could really get a feel for the atmosphere at the time and what kind of life it wasn’t. For the second half of the book the Joads struggle to find work and shelter in what they once believed could be the promised land. The extra chapters beyond their story further describe how migrants were generally treated and tactics the California land owners, police, and politicians used to keep them poor, starved and disorganized.
Steinbeck was living in California in the late ‘30s and he knew he had to write this book. While he was relatively well off, he had nothing but compassion for the migrants and their predicament. It might be worthwhile to look for the essays he wrote on the topic prior to deciding to write the book.
We easily figured out the reasons why the book would get banned. I’ll highlight a few and I’m sure there are others.
The whole state of California had reason to limit access, since they come across as a state full of capitalistic racist bastards. Derogatory terms for the migrants (red, Okie), not giving them access to decent and clean accommodations, ruining food to keep prices high rather than feed everyone on the excess, etc.
For all the references to the bible and biblical themes throughout the book, Steinbeck’s main characters have little good to say about religion. Tom Joad admits to Casy that his baptism was basically pointless. It didn’t make him a better man; he killed one. It was self defense, but still. He got stabbed in the gut and then shoveled the guy’s head in. Not exactly “eye for an eye” there. Casy himself admits he slept with most of the young women he preached to over the course of his career. Ma Joad goes ballistic over a strange woman at a camp in California after the woman’s religious hate-mongering scares the crap out of Ma’s pregnant daughter, Rose of Sharon. Ma Joad has little good to say about the Salvation Army’s so-called charity, too.
It’s been a while since the meeting but I dog-eared the pages as we talked about them (I know! Tsk! Tsk!) and hopefully I can use them to jolt my memory.
– Casy’s matter-of-fact secular “prayer” over the body of Grampa, said only because he was asked to give one. He does similar when a woman from a family they’ve been traveling with is on her way out, too. Unlike with Grampa, he utters nothing aloud, leaving her (and readers) to assume a prayer got said. Personally I think he was just putting on a show to make her happy in her last moments. She goes believing she got prayed on and Casy goes “out of the dusky tent into the blinding light” which might remind readers (me, at any rate) of bright lights and ascension toward heaven
– Discussion of the lines at the start of chapter 14: You may know it in this way. If the step were not being taken, if the stumbling-forward ache were not alive, the mobs would not fall, the throats would not be cut. Fear the time when the bombs stop falling while the bombers live—for every bomb is proof that the spirit has not died. And fear the time when the strikes stop while the great owners live—for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken. And this you can know—fear the tiem when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.
– Casy’s realization that general love of humanity matters a lot more in this world than a specific love of Jesus. Also, him claiming not to have been trying to emulate Jesus when he chose to walk the world and talk to people. He simply couldn’t watch people pray by rote anymore and behave like hypocrites. Instead, he strove to become one with the world until he “wasn’t separate no more. We was one thing. An’ that one thing was holy.” (p. 81)
– Discussion and debate over the seeming acceptance of alcoholism within the Joad family, and other characters mentioned in the book.
– Turns of phrase Steinbeck used to convey scenery, folk wisdom and emotion. IE. Fat angrily sizzling in pans, putting a knife under the mattress to cut the pain of childbirth and (and this might be my personal favourite) “Pa’d crap a litter of lizards…” (p.175)
– Tom Joad’s matter-of-fact way of dealing with people, like the one eye’d guy feeling more sorry for himself than was necessary and how his behaviour was getting in the way of getting on with his life. (Fun story in there about a one legged prostitute who can charge more because of the novelty of it, too.) In fact, nearly all the Joads have similar attitudes toward problem solving. They’re not shy. They have a lot of pride and aren’t scared by much either. Living through the loss of everything you ever had makes other worries seem kind of petty.
– Tom said, “Prayer never brought in no side-meat. Takes a shoat to bring in pork.” “Yeah,” Casy said. “An’ Almighty God never raised no wages. These here folks want to live decent and bring up their kids decent…” (p. 250)
– General discussion over those who took and those who gave and those who hindered and those who helped, not just the Joads, but anyone in need of shelter and work and friendship and hope.
The book simply ends with the Joads stuck in a winter flood, truck under water, and everything looks pretty hopeless for them. Rose of Sharon also lost her baby (sent dead down the river in the manner Moses was) but in what might be her first selfless gesture in the whole book, uses the opportunity to give her milk to a man near death. We’re left not knowing what their overall chances are. The overall assumption is: not good.
It’s brutal and grim but funny in parts and it’s clear there’s love in this family even though there isn’t money or much in the way of food and other things we generally take for granted in this society. The whole book pulls you into a different time, yet so much of it winds up as relevant today as it was when it was first written.
Read it. Seriously.