"I don't know what the country's comin' to," the fat man continued. His complaint had shifted and he was no longer talking to or about the Joads. "Fifty-six cars a folks go by ever' day, folks all movin' West with kids an' househol' stuff. Where they goin'? What they gonna do?"
"Doin' the same as us," said Tom. "Goin' someplace to live. Tryin' to get along. That's all."
That just might be the theme of this novel: regular, ordinary people doing the best they can, "tryin' to get along", in a world where the cards all seem stacked against them. Just out of prison, Tom Joad comes home to find his family driven off the land they've farmed for generations. These sharecroppers are hard workers, but what are they without their land? So, they sell everything they own and set out for California, hoping to build a better life there. But there aren't jobs for them in California, at least not ones that pay enough for them to live on; and though they scrimp and scrabble, they never seem able to get ahead. Loss and tragedy seem to be their lot in life.
In this novel, John Steinbeck skillfully depicts what life was like during the great Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, as well as the hardships, hopes and defeats of the Joad family. At 455 pages, this isn't a fast read. But there's a rhythm to Steinbeck's prose that I really appreciate; it's almost poetic. Like in this paragraph:
"66 is the path of people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert's slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight."
Did I love this one? Not exactly. But only because the Joads' story is so sad. No matter how hard they try they never get ahead; things just keep going from bad to worse for them. And I hated the hopelessness of their journey. But I do like the way Steinbeck writes. He tells a powerful and sweeping story, and I can see why The Grapes of Wrath is considered a classic. And I'm very glad I read it. Written in 1939, this one counts as my 20th Century Classic for Karen's Back to the Classics Challenge.