Book Club: The Grapes of Wrath – Moving

Below I’ve put together a few thoughts I’ve had on John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. Focusing on the first half of the book, I couldn’t help noticing how many movements and transitions take place, involving characters ranging from Tom Joad to Casy to Muley – and even a turtle.

The novel starts out with a description of the conditions of the time, so graphic you can almost feel the dirt infiltrating your nostrils. Then we meet Tom Joad on his way home. He’s wearing new clothing and looking for a ride, and we soon find out that he’s been in prison. He’s experiencing a major transition: from prison life to life back in the outside world, back to home, family and work.

Like the rest of his family later in the novel, he’s on the go for two reasons:

1)      He’s looking to put the past behind him. He did his time and got out early for good behaviour.

2)      He’s looking toward the future. He has come to terms with what he did and is ready to focus on what needs to be done now to build a successful future.

Later, we see the whole Joad family picking up their home, where each generation has contributed to the family’s survival on the same plot of land, and heading for the Southwest. The Joads have heard that things are better in California – and after all they’ve been through, what do they have to lose by making this long journey? Isn’t it a decision any of us would make if we were in the same situation?

I’ve gone out on my own a few times, for various reasons, to places where I knew nobody, or next to nobody. My first move was for education: to western Canada and specifically Winnipeg. This is usually why people move on their own for the first time; not many of us stay home to further our educations. I went in hopes of a better future, a better job and therefore a more sustainable lifestyle.

After I got my degree, I made my second move, this time from a major city to a much smaller town with a different world view from my own. Why? A job, a place to call home and eke out an existence among people I didn’t know.

My third move was to South Korea, not only for a job but for an experience. I wanted to see how others lived and hopefully develop some other skills that I could use further down the road.

And after all that, like a prodigal son, I came back to my hometown – Stratford.

Unlike the families on these farms in The Grapes of Wrath, I could decide whether I wanted to make a move, and why. Landowners didn’t come banging on my door telling me I had to leave home. I wasn’t destitute, forced to move halfway across the country in the hope that I would be able to make some money to support a family – or myself for that matter.

The Joads (and the real-life migrants who inspired their story) had lost it all, but they had hope for a brighter future; they were going to a place that promised a better life, hoping to get back (in a sense) the things they had lost. They were going to make it; they were going to have again the life they had before their land was taken away.

So far, I’ve talked about the Joad family (and given you a little insight into my life), but there’s another character in the book who might at first sight seem utterly trivial – though not for the author. I don’t recall where I read this, but apparently Steinbeck’s favourite parts of The Grapes of Wrath were those involving the turtle.

I must say I really enjoyed those bits too. I felt, while reading about the turtle, that he was moving with a purpose as well – we just don’t know what that purpose might be. The turtle experiences danger and hardship on his expedition but doesn’t let that stop him from carrying on. Once he is able to get back on his journey, after being scooped up by Tom, he heads toward the Southwest.

What journeys have you made? Why have they led you in the directions they did? And for what reasons did you decide to undertake them? These are questions I started asking myself while reading this book – and I hope you’ll ask them too. I’ll be interested to read what you have to say about the Joad family’s travels and the ones you’ve gone on yourself.

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One thought on “Book Club: The Grapes of Wrath – Moving

  1. Almost all of us can identify with the theme of personal journey in The Grapes of Wrath. In my own life, my latest journey has been three years long, alone, since my husband died. And like Aaron, I’ve gone many places by myself for the first time in my life. It’s scary but also really satisfying to be self sufficient.
    Steinbeck wrote several chapters like the one about the turtle which don’t advance the plot. But they certainly advance the themes. The turtle is traveling west and won’t be stopped, by the truck or by Tom Joad. Another thing I noticed is that he plants seeds that have stuck to his skin. In another chapter Steinbeck describes what happens to the houses when the people abandon them and move on. Nature reclaims them. That life force cannot be stopped, and I think that applies to the characters too. Some of them will die, but their progress cannot be stopped.
    The characters are so vivid. I’m already imagining the various actors in the roles, and I can’t wait to hear them speak the words. In the beginning Tom Joad is on his way home from having served time in prison. He doesn’t care about anyone else, which is understandable. He wants to drink and find a woman as soon as he can. He listens to Jim Casey’s musings about morality, but it doesn’t mean anything to him. Casey’s statements about religion set up what I think is one of the major tensions in the book: the old ways vs. the new ways. The old religion doesn’t work for him anymore. And as we meet the members of the Joad family, we see that the older they are, the more they try to hang on to their former lives. Some of them will not be able to change and will be casualties. The dog is a great symbol of this idea. He’s a farm dog and runs at his will; as soon as he’s out on the highway with cars zooming by – – –
    The last time I read this book was almost 25 years ago; I was 38. The idea of clinging to the past is so much more understandable to me now. All humans resist change, but I know now that as we get older, change becomes much more difficult for us.

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