The Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 1940, this is the story of the Joad family, Oklahoma tenant farmers displaced from their land by the combined effects of ecological disaster, rampant capitalism and the Great Depression. The narrative follows the family as they travel from Oklahoma to California in search of work, along with hundreds of thousands of others in the same situation. Woven into the story of the Joads are chapters dealing with issues such as the attitude of Californians to the influx of migrant workers and the exploitation and mistreatment to which they were subjected.
There is nothing about this novel which I don't love: Steinbeck's wonderful use of language, his ability to create memorable characters, his descriptions of the natural world, his use of symbolism and - probably most of all - his passion. Steinbeck is not a writer who hides himself behind his words: his humanism, his left-wing political views, his compassion for those whose story he tells are all right there in the text. Listening to the audiobook - which is superbly narrated by John Chancer - I felt I was getting to know Steinbeck as well as his characters. One of the things I most like about Steinbeck's writing is the sense that he wrote what he knew, not just what he had imagined or researched. When Steinbeck writes about displaced people, the reader is sure that he knew such people personally. When he describes a land turtle, it's because he had observed how a land turtle moves. When he has his characters carry out repairs to their truck, he knows what they would do because he's carried out those same repairs himself. Steinbeck lives and breathes in his writing.
While this is the story of "Okies" in depression-era California, it's also the story of all those who have been forced to leave their homes - whether because of natural disaster, economic crisis, or conflict - and found themselves poor, hungry and desperate in a place where they are not welcome. It's a story which is repeated over and over, all over the world. The novel made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me angry and it made me sad. However, it also gave me hope. There is an essential humanity and a deep vein of hope in Steinbeck's characters: bad things happen to them, but they work hard to survive. And they know the power of love, of loyalty and of connectedness to each other.
I will be forever grateful that a stopover in Monterey during a drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles prompted me to finally start reading Steinbeck. I'd give this book ten stars if I could. It's quite simply a masterpiece.