The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Okay, people. I really tried with this one. My friend F is a huge Steinbeck fan, so huge that she chose East of Eden for her book club pick this July. I won’t rehash how I feel about that, because I reviewed it for CBR7 and greatly disliked it. Before reading The Grapes of Wrath, I theorized that Steinbeck suffers from White Male Writer Syndrome—namely, that he literally has no clue about women. I decided to see if The Grapes of Wrath added any weight to my theory. Guess what—IT TOTALLY DOES, YO. I am showing up to Book Club with my feminist guns blazing.
The Grapes of Wrath is about the Dust Bowl, the Depression, and the migrant movement to California. The Joad family has been ousted out of their land in Oklahoma and, thanks to a pamphlet promising work in California, has decided to pack up and take their chances in a new land. Tom, one of the oldest sons, has just been released from prison and seeks redemption in a new land. Rose of Sharon, the oldest daughter, wishes to raise her unborn child with her husband in a new home with white picket fences. But what awaits them in California speaks to the bitterness residing behind the American Dream.
Thematically speaking, this is an incisive, poignant book. Steinbeck is a visually descriptive writer, and he brings the Dust Bowl and the despair as a result of corporate greed to life. I was drawn to his general narrative about the Dust Bowl itself. Tom Joad’s story is also one of despair. Here’s a guy who wants a new start and is completely crippled by the system in which he has been driven to make poor choices.
HOWEVER. None of this excuses the fact that the women in this novel are reduced to mothers, and flat characters at that. We know very little about Ma beyond her mothering capabilities. Rose of Sharon is continually objectified for her pregnant body, and the end gets weird. Don’t even get me started on that closing and what it does for Rose of Sharon’s narrative.
I’m definitely not a Steinbecker. There. I’ve said it. I appreciate how he brings the Dust Bowl to life and how he frames capitalism, corporate farming, and poverty. I do not appreciate his treatment of women, particularly with their given roles in the narrative.