Some years ago, a friend came into work one morning looking very unwell. "Book hang-over," she mumbled, clutching her coffee cup. "I just finished The God of Small Things last night."
When asked about the book, Steinbeck remarked, "I've done my damnedest to rip a reader's nerves to rags..."
When the book came out in 1939, it hit raw nerves aplenty. Infuriated farmers branded Steinbeck a communist-socialist. Schools and religious organisations banned the book, some going so far as to burn it. The Pulitzer Prize committee awarded it the prize for fiction in 1940. The fact that I'm slumped here in 2011, my nerves in rags, is just one more testament to the book's power.
The novel is set in the 1930s, when the Great Dust Bowl had enveloped farms in Oklahoma and nearby states. Facing starvation and eviction, "Okies" headed to California in an exodus of staggering scale -- about 250,000 families all lured by rumour of work on farms and vineyards. One character in the book sits beside his small shop on Rte 66, watching the desperate westward flow of families in barely-running vehicles, and he murmurs only one phrase over and over: "I jus' don't know what the country's a-comin' to." This was the time of industrialisation of America's farms, when farming became an industry, when tractors lifted a man's feet off the soil he was working, when farms no longer belonged to people but to banks. The members of the Joad family, Steinbeck's characters, are just one more overloaded vehicle-load of tired, hungry, frightened farm people to reach California and find themselves exploited and loathed.
In the current euphemistic jargon, I suppose the Joads would be termed economic refugees, but I wonder how many Americans today read The Grapes of Wrath and feel a shock that so many fellow citizens suffered and died in squalid camps -- not in Bosnia or the Sudan, but in California. Racial and ethnic injustices have been with the US from its beginnings, but the migrant Okies were white Americans. Their offense? Destitution.
As I was reading The Grapes of Wrath, the black and white pictures of Dorothea Lange kept popping into my head. I wonder if anyone ever published an edition of his novel illustrated with her photographs. I wonder if they ever met, those two great documenters of the Dust Bowl and Depression. Their works complemented each other so well, it seems obvious that they shared the same passions and sensibilities. Lange's best-known image, "Migrant Mother" (top), has haunted me from the first time I saw it in a school text-book, and I don't expect Ma Joad to vacate my memory any time soon, either.