Book Club: ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ chapters 1-6

Jenn and I are hovering over the keyboard together writing this first installment of our little e-book club, so despite the fact that it’s under my name, it’s only because I’m typing. Let’s get to chatting about John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” shall we?

For starters, I should say that even though Jenn said I’d never read the book before, I have seen the 1940 film (penned by Columbus’s own Nunnally Johnson — woot!), which Steinbeck himself said was a finer product than his book. Which is probably BS. But still.

For the first six chapters, Steinbeck alternates between allegory and the more tangible narrative around protagonist Tom Joad. We primed ourselves for the book by watching Ken Burns’ documentary “The Dust Bowl.” It proved a perfect setup, especially for the first chapter, which set to words in five pages what took Burns four hours. Jenn could see the images from photos and film in her mind as she read the chapter, and particularly recalled the woman from the first minutes of “The Dust Bowl” who struggled to find a word to describe the storms before settling on “evil.”

The turtle — what does he represent? Mankind? Tom Joad, specifically? The part of the country? … Jenn’s inclined to think he’s a parallel to Tom. I’m more inclined to think he represents man as a whole. Either way, he’s doggedly focused and tenacious. There’s some drama as Tom captures the turtle. Will he be turned into soup? Will he die in captivity? It’s some comfort, at least in the short term, to see him freed and slowly make his way toward the setting sun. In fact, he’s heading toward California, no matter which way the outside elements try to point him and for reasons no one really understands.

I particularly liked the fifth chapter, in which the viewpoint shifted from the battered farmers to the banks in alternate paragraphs. Here’s a passage:

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.
Yes, but the bank is only made of men.
No, you’re wrong there — quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men…

Elsewhere, the description of the tractors and big farm machinery moving across the land reminded Jenn of the grasshopper plagues that further battered the farmers in real life, whether that metaphor was Steinbeck’s intent or not.

OK, to Tom Joad.

He’s honest and self aware. He wants to work but realizes the odds of finding a job as a convict are slim. So going home seems to be his only option. The tension begins to mount quickly, as he discovers the abandoned homestead, learns his family is heading west, and knows that he can’t leave the state because of his parole.

(Also, he scratches his toes a lot. Does that mean something, or did folks just scratch their toes a lot in the olden days?)

It’s interesting that, even though he killed a man, he’s still a sympathetic character. The manslaughter was clearly self defense. He made a snap decision, a brutal decision, in the fight in order to save his life. (Foreshadowing, mayhaps?) Joad was far from a troublemaker in prison, and he’s liked by the people he meets on his journey home. But his hands seems tightly tied by his past.

The other main character we’ve met is Jim Casey, the disillusioned preacherman. Jenn was the first to note that his initials might be significant, and maybe that’s all we should say about that right now. Despite his disillusionment about religion, he still has hope for mankind. He’s found a way to transfer his former spiritual beliefs into something tangible, like where he concludes that the Holy Spirit is actually the Human Spirit. I don’t think Steinbeck’s going for the collective unconscious here. Rather, I suspect he’s trying to make us — people — feel accountable for our fellow man. Jenn thinks he may be getting at the same thing that the band of Montreal was talking about in the 2010 song “You Do Mutilate,” where Kevin Barnes says:

If you think God is more important than your neighbor
You’re capable of terrible evil
If you think some prophet’s words are more important
Than your brother and your sister
You’re ill, and you’re wrong, You’re wrong

This isn’t the forum to debate whether Steinbeck’s, or Barnes’s, position is right or wrong. But if anyone thinks we’re off-base with the comparison, please call us on it.

The final character of note so far is Muley, Joad’s old buddy, who’s stubbornly refused to leave when the rest of his family goes. Why? Apparently because he’s told he must leave — by the banks and the businessmen. The Cliffs Notes we grabbed to help steer our discussion say he’s become an animal. I think that’s too harsh, but he’s certainly become more primal and desperate than Joad or Casey. And seeing his devolution is likely to add more fuel to Joad’s tough stay-or-go decision to come. He also serves to explain the new natural order for the Okies. While they still hunt that which is lower on the chain, and indeed it’s Muley’s rabbit that feeds them this night, they end the evening hiding in the cotton fields from the searchlights of the men who spot their campfire and begin hunting them.

This can't end well.

It’s nice to note that there is humor to be found in these grim pages. Jenn’s favorite “funny” moment is when Joad talks about his mother who tries to attack a man with a chicken in her hand, because she’s mad and forgotten which hand is holding the axe. … My favorite is when Joad tells Casey about his dad stealing a house abandoned by another family. They cut it in two to move, but when they return for the second half of the house, someone else had already taken the rest of it.

Good times.

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The next assignment: Let’s read chapters 7-12 (that’s 78 pages in Jenn’s edition) and talk some more next Sunday. If anyone’s joining us in this quest, y’all please chime in. Book clubs are only fun if everyone speaks.

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