I first truly started reading John Steinbeck in high school. In middle school, I read the dreaded Red Pony, one of those unit assignments that seemed to go on for months, and the story of a boy and his horse paled in comparison to the jealous gods and goddesses I had studied in the previous Greek and Roman mythology unit. I picked up Cannery Row my junior year of high school, and from there went on to Of Mice and Men, which inspired me to create a lost wax sculpture of a hippy rabbit in tribute to Lenny. I hadn’t read Steinbeck in years and picked up The Grapes of Wrath from the bookshelf, thinking it would be a good companion read to the troubled times we are in now.
When I opened the book, I saw an inscription in what was my rounded, naive high school script: “To K.S. from S.F.” and the year the book had been given. It had probably been a Christmas present from my high school friend while I was in the grips of my Steinbeck phase. I had to put the book away for a few weeks while I was in the middle of a difficult freelance assignment, but once I picked it back up again, I gobbled the story and the pages flew by in hours.
“Okies,” a disparaging term that is probably the equivalent of “redneck” today, definitely brings a stereotype to my mind, making me think that fun is going to be poked at illiteracy, barefoot and pregnant women, and so on. These subjects are not avoided–they are confronted head-on–but the humanity that Steinbeck treats his cast of characters with, it transcends the stereotypes, works with them, and brings to light admirable qualities in people most often derided. The toughness of Ma Joad as she spoons around the dead body of Grandpa, pretending she is alive to the authorities, in order to get her family to where they need to go. That’s grit, a part of the American character that seems lacking today.
There is sexism–many scenes are described where the women are part of the background with the children as the men hunker down near their jalopies making the decisions that will affect the whole family unit. Gradually, though, and in a method that I don’t believe to be accidental, the men become peripheral as they face situations, problems that they can’t solve, and it is the women who keep everybody going. Ma Joad doing her best to erect a hearth in whatever desperate living situation the Joads find themselves in, providing a center, a nucleus, for the family. Rose of Sharon acting as savior for the poor after she loses her chance at starting her own family.