The Ghost of Tom Joad by The Boss
WD Book Review = The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. A little bit of an odd choice I’ll agree. Like most of you, WD has a peculiar relationship with this book for two reasons.
First if you’ve read it, you read it in high school, and no matter how much of your free time you killed reading Stephen King then, you begrudgingly flipped through and hated everything else you were assigned to read by public servants doing their best. As such, when you reflect back at those great pieces of literature, your (N.B. my) instant reaction is that of the stubborn hubris of 17 year old who’s certain he can’t possibly learn from, much less be moved by anything from an old ass book that Mrs. Ladd thinks is important for me to read.
Second, ’round these parts GoW has been villified for the derogatory term for us it helped popularize: Okie. However, like some derogatory terms, (N.B. Which I’m not going to list out, because it feels weird. Listen to some hip-hop or go to a gay bar. You know what I mean.) we have embraced Okie. However, that wasn’t always the case, and for a book that spent a lot of it’s life on and off banned booked lists, GoW has been particularly derided in the land of Gary England for its depiction of us and the derogatory term hurled at us by California assholes in its second half.
Considering all that (plus its insistence on appearing on just about everyone’s “Greatest Novels of the 20th Century List”) I decided to read Grapes of Wrath again. Really read it. Explore it.
And with not much surprise, it’s pretty good. My first instinct was to try and divorce it from reading it as an Okie, but that was foolish, and I gave it up about the time the Joads got west of Oklahoma City. I let myself in embrace it, and was tickled as during their trip west down 66 I could picture exactly the landscape they traveled through.
But I also felt a weird kinship with them, despite wanting to yell at Pa every time he said some variant of: “why would they’a printed up all these fliers for fruit-pickers if there wudn’t work ‘nough for ever’one?.” I ended up feeling like these were my people, and I would root for them. But, knowing how the story ends (N.B. and not with the hopeful saccharine of the 1940 John Ford movie) makes the layer and layer of heartbreak Steinbeck paints that much more powerful.
The intercalary chapters I really liked at first, as wonderfully setting the scene and the times. However, toward the end they struck me as a crutch. Or maybe he got preachy. I understand that was his point, but the best preachy works are those that don’t sound preachy. Steinbeck started to cross that line toward the end.
Jim Casy as the Jesus Christ of the fruit-pickers labor movement struck me as something I should have found more poignant, but it didn’t resonate with me. When Tom accepted his teachings and told Ma what he hoped to do with them in the famous speech paraphrased in this very song, it felt just a smidge hollow.
To me, despite what The Boss and Woody Guthrie and Rage Against the Machine think, Tom Joad isn’t the hero of Grapes of Wrath. Ma is the hero. The forever unnamed emotional core of a family on the brink of disintegration. And the very end of the book in the scene that I damn sure didn’t understand in the 90s and which John Ford thought it best not to include in his movie, Ma urges her lesson that we must take care of each other on perhaps the last person she has that will listen to her, woebegon Rosasharn.
“She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.”
Okies, give it a second go. You’ll be impressed.