It took 200 pages before I started not hating this book. A revelation which surprised me, since I was expecting to hate the entire thing. Now, had I not had a warning about what I was getting in to from Steinbeck himself, perhaps I would be writing a very different review. DeMott’s introduction has an excerpt from a letter Steinbeck wrote to his editor, Pascal Covici, where the author states that “I’ve done my damndest [sic] to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied.” (xiv) and overall that is what happens. Troubles on troubles. Chapters of more lyrical writing that cover the circumstances and background of the migrant workers as a whole are interspersed amongst the particular exodus, hardships and drama of the Joad family. While the focus is very much on the narrative chapters and the Joads, the “interchapters” as Steinbeck called them, offer a little breathing room. Without being too long or distracting. Apparently this was the first time Steinbeck had used this technique and I’ve got to say, I think he nailed it. As he did the dialect. (Once you get used to it.) I was not expecting there to be so much folksy dialogue. It suffuses every chapter; is used by 95% of the characters. After a couple hundred pages it grows on you; or possibly just warps your mind around to liking it. It’s hard to tell the difference.
Another thing I was pleasantly surprised by was Steinbeck’s characterization of his female characters. Considering that this book was published in the 30’s, I was expecting either zero female characters or a small number of rambling cliches. What appeared in the novel was depth. Gravity. Power. Value. Complexity. He wrote the women exactly the way he wrote the men. They did stupid things, made good decisions and poor ones, contributed as best as they knew how, and were appreciated for their contributions by the people around them. It was magical. Male characters have a range of emotions and share them with others, imagine that! All from a novel published in the late 1930s. Minimal racism too! Although that’s most likely because there are few characters of colour. Towards the end there are a couple of Native American characters who have minor roles, but certainly not a thick and layered representation like the white men and women. Which is disappointing, considering the high percentage, historically, of non-white migrant workers in California’s agricultural industry. I also read many complaints that the novel is excessively sentimental; there were a couple instances that made me cringe a little. If you hate sentimentality, this may not be the book for you.
The oddest part of this book for me: for some reason I found myself imagining Ayn Rand reading The Grapes of Wrath and being profoundly influenced by it. Not that their philosophies are at all similar; but it seemed The Grapes of Wrath and Atlas Shrugged had a lot in common. The plight of mankind, the evils of exploitation; harsh, bleak landscapes with cruel selfish people. I would consider signing up for an English course comparing and contrasting these novels, if such a course existed. Provided I got to skip over the monologue in Atlas Shrugged. I suspect both of those books will stay with me forever, and I’m not disappointed by the company.