Century of Books

My project to read the top 100 English-language books of the twentieth century.

Location: San Francisco, United States

I am an Australian writer and blogger living in San Francisco. Visit my professional site at caitlinfitzsimmons.com, or my travel and food blog at Roaming Tales or my personal blog at The Niltiac Files. I am also on Twitter as @niltiac. See the full list of books or visit me on BookCrossing.

21 August 2006

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

It was not until the second half of the book when the Joad family were in California and on the heartbreaking quest for work and a decent living that this book really started to move me. The first half was enjoyable enough and there was much in the writing to admire but it felt more like a long introduction, while the second half felt like the main story.

The book works slowly, building up a picture line by line and layer by layer until the full devastation hits you. Perhaps it hits different people at different times but for the book became really gripping around the time the family arrived in the government camp in California. The emotional intensity builds to the very end and the ending, although a little surreal, brings home the way people can lose everything and be at rock bottom, yet they still have more to give and there is always someone worse off.

This is a deeply important book about an aspect of American history that is little written about. Stories about the Great Depression tend to be urban and little is known about the great westward migrations and the dispossession from the land. I was familiar with the term "Okies" to mean "hick" or "redneck" but had no idea of its origins. I knew nothing about the Hoovervilles across the country – named for President J. Edgar Hoover who was blamed for his economic crises – and the shameful role of the police in persecuting people who had already lost everything. (This is not covered by the book but the biggest Hooverville was in Washington DC where it was one General Macarthur who was responsible for razing the shanty town to the ground and slaughtering thousands of Americans).

Yet this book, although published in the late 1930s about what was then very recent history, is not just about the past. The story of dispossession and exploitation and repression goes on. It is still the case that food production is in the hands of fewer and fewer owners and that farmers find it difficult to compete unless they are involved in processing as well. It is still the case that migrant – or these days immigrant – workers are lured into jobs on false pretexts and kept on casual contracts at minimum wages for years, often under the most dire conditions in terms of health and safety. The problem is now globalised so that vast tracts of Amazon rainforest are now cleared to grow soy crops for cattle feed to supply the burger industry at the lowest possible cost. Books like Eric Schlosser’s excellent and entertaining Fast Food Nation or Felicity Lawrence’s Not on the Label tell of this more recent history and current events. The shame is that we no longer have the Great Depression to blame for it.

This copy is from BookCrossing - see all journal entries here.

35 down, 65 to go...


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