There is little doubt as to why this book has become a classic. Not only does it exemplify brilliant writing, but the story itself reaches down into your soul and twists your heart so that it hurts. Steinbeck follows the Joad family, a typical “Okie” family of the 1930’s, as they lose their farm and are enticed by all the flyers posted to move out West. Heeding the promise of work and beautiful land and opportunity, they leave everything that is familiar to cross the plains and the desert to go to California. Tragically, what they find there is that hundreds of thousands have also been enticed there as well, leaving very little work actually available and what is available is paid in cut wages because of the very glut of workers that the flyers have accomplished. So while the large farmers reduce their cost, the thousands of workers have reduced wages, not even enough to feed themselves and their families. It is a slice of history about which our country should be deeply ashamed.
The writing is powerfully authentic. Steinbeck’s chapters alternate between a description of the general state of affairs in the country and what is happening with the Joad family on a personal level. The more general chapters broaden the scope of the story and remind the reader that this is not just happening to the Joads but to thousands of “Joads” throughout the middle of the country. The personal chapters bring it down to the individual and remind the reader that these are real people to which these tragedies are occurring — real people, with children, and parents, and love for each other who have personal dignity to lose.
Steinbeck makes a heartfelt plea in this story for the unions and it is clear why they were essential at this time. It was a very brave move on his part and this book is a testament to his courage and brilliance as an historian and an author.
If you haven’t ever read this book, you are missing out on an important piece of literature and history.