Five stars for description. Two stars for the story.
536 pages, ★★★
I’m new to fiction. As a habitual reader of non-fiction, I expect to learn from books. Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath alternates between extremely well-written descriptions of 1930s America (which satisfies my need to ‘learn’ while reading) and a slow story that really doesn’t grip me. I want the descriptions without the story.
Descriptions of the desolate environment (around page 100) and of mechanized farming (around page 300) were an unforgettable history lesson. I’ll remember this book because the 1930s America is describes resonates with late 1950s China, where farmers also endured natural disasters, excessive mechanization, unemployment and famine. Anecdotes in The Grapes of Wrath (such as not having enough money to buy bread) made me, for the first time, sympathetic of towards the United States of America. They’ve not always had it so easy.
Here’s some of my favorite description in The Grapes of Wrath:
Now farming became industry, and the owners followed Rome, although they did not know it. They imported slaves, although they did not call them slaves: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos. They ice on rice and beans, the business men said. They don’t need much. They couldn’t know what to do with good wages. Why, look how they live. Why, look what they eat. And if they get funny–deport them.
And all the time the farms grew larger and the owners fewer. And there were pitifully few farmers on the land any more. And the imported serfs were beaten and frightened and starved until some went home again, and some grew fierce and were killed or driven from the country. And farms grew larger and the owners fewer.
And the crops changed. Fruit trees took the place of grain fields, and vegetables to feed the world spread out on the bottoms: lettuce, cauliflower, artichokes, potatoes–stoop crops. A man may stand to use a scythe, a plow, a pitchfork; but he must crawl like a bug between the rows of lettuce, he must bend his back and pull his long bag between the cotton rows, he must go on his knees like a penitent across a cauliflower patch.
And it came about that owners no longer worked on their farms. They farmed on paper; and they forgot the land, the smell, the feel of it, and remembered only that they owned it, remembered only what they gained and lost by it. And some of the farms grew so large that one man could not even conceive of them any more, so large that it took batteries of bookkeepers to keep track of interest and gain and loss; chemists to test the soil, to replenish; straw bosses to see that the stooping men were moving along the rows as swiftly as the material of their bodies could stand. Then such a farmer really became a storekeeper, and kept a store. He paid the men, and sold them food, and took the money back. And after a while he did not pay the men at all, and saved bookkeeping. “These farms gave food on credit. A man might work and feed himself; and when the work was done, he might find that he owed money to the company. And the owners not only did not work the farms any more, many of them had never seen the farms they owned.
And then the dispossessed were drawn west–from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless–restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do–to lift , to push, to pull, to pick, to cut p anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.
We ain’t foreign. Seven generations back Americans, and beyond that Irish, Scotch, English German. One of our folk in the Revolution an’ they was lots of our folks in the Civil War—both sides. Americans.
— Chapter 19, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
I wanted to read a descriptive, historical account of 1930s America. The Grapes of Wrath certainly provided that, but I would have preferred if it were not interwoven with such a dull story. This book was too long. ★★★