My pick for the 20th Century Classic (any book published between 1900 and 1966) for the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted on Books and Chocolate was The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. My completion of this title is a double whammy, since I am slowly working my way through reading all of the Modern Library's Top 100 and this book is on that list as well. This puts me at now having read 68 out of the 100. : )
The following quote from Steinbeck about the creation of the Grapes of Wrath was included the introduction by Robert Dermott in the Penguin edition that I read: “I have done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags …” He certainly met his objective as far as I am concerned; this book wore me out and it made me mad. I admire the novel for its tenacity, but reading it was like figuratively getting punched repeatedly. There were very few light moments, such as when the two younger Joad children use a flush toilet for the first time.
It is amazing to me that the book was researched, written and published during the Great Depression; Steinbeck was writing about something that was happening in real time which gives the novel a real sense of urgency and anger I think. I can understand also why its publication was is/was controversial. Not only is it irreligious and frank about sex, it also is a call to arms politically. However, it is important to note, that regardless of how liberal this book’s politics are, there is only one brief mention of the non-white migrant farm workers of this era. This is not their story even though they must have suffered just as much. And even more discouraging is to think that the type of human exploitation explored in the novel is not something of the past, but continues to happen even now, over three quarters of a century later.
The book has an interesting structure as the longer chapters that chronologically recount the Joad family’s journey from the Oklahoma dust bowl to the alleged paradise of California is interspersed with shorter chapters that read almost like sermons or Tom Waits lyrics. I found it a challenging read, mostly due to the content. I had to make myself read parts of it, so I was glad of those shorter chapters because the provided a break from the downward spiral of the family's prospects as they move west. All in all, a very powerful book which I am glad to have finally read.