I like to read modern literary classics, as well as new Australian books with accolades, and I had picked up Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck some months ago. I have read a number of other books at the same time, and I kept putting other reading in front of this book.
But over the Christmas period, I decided I couldn’t have so many books going at once, so I needed to finish some off. This was one of them. Once I made the commitment to getting into it – I couldn’t put it down.
The difference in the writing from modern writing is quite distinct – it is very long-winded, poetic and the pace is slow. But once I let those things go, I really enjoyed the descriptive writing, and the long sections of dialogue. It was really quite brilliant.
Once I had embraced the book and committed to it, instead of picking it up and putting it down, I was actually able to grasp the political statement that Steinbeck was making, and the themes of poverty and class that he was outlining.
The economic refugees in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath became more and more relevant to me, after I began to think about the parallels with the Syrian and African refugees in Europe. I began to think about the anger and protectionism of the Europeans towards the refugees, instead of compassion, because there is not enough to go around and the Europeans didn’t want to be driven into poverty also.
The refugee camps, and the behaviour of authorities towards the refugees began to give me some insight into what life is possible like in some of the camps that these migrating refugees are escaping from. Even though they are fleeing poverty and conditions in the first camps they come to, the conditions they arrive into in Europe are not much better. The refugees have an image in their mind of abundance and compassion, and that’s not what they find.
Unfortunately Grapes of Wrath ends with just the hint of a revolution, but doesn’t follow it through. For the main characters, it also leaves them in the lurch in the middle of a barn, having left their possessions behind in a flood, and the young girl whose baby was still born is breast feeding a starving man! Desperation, and no way out, is how the story ends.
But history for the American depression must not have been all like that, since their country climbed out of the economic depression without a major civil war or revolution, and has gone onto be a major economic power. Rather than the downward spiral that Steinbeck illustrates of people being pushed off the land and being replaced by big companies with machines, there was an industrial and manufacturing revolution which must have picked up those people.
As well as the Syrian refugees, I can see that there may be another similar revolution as the way we work changes yet again. With the increase in technological ability, basic jobs are being automated and systemised, and less people are needed. So will we again face a similar escalation of people living in poverty due to job downturn and inability to retrain or support their families?