At a time when the world has been baking in a summer which seems to have no end and headlines scream that the only thing separating mankind from annihilation is two degrees on the thermometer, a current reader of The Grapes of Wrath can keenly appreciate the uncertainty and fear that even the smallest change in the natural environment can wreck. However what happened to the natural environment in America during the Dust Bowl could not have been referred to as a ‘small change’ by even the most demented optimist. Decades of bad farming practices had seen the deep rooted grasses which covered the Midwest, trapping soil and moisture even in drought conditions, had been torn up by farmers and replaced by cropland. As a direct result of the dust storms which hit mercilessly between 1930-38 in the Midwest, were catastrophic. Without those hardy grasses there was nothing to anchor the fragile topsoil and it was whipped into the air covering the vast patchwork of tiny farms in an apocalyptic patina of dust. Nothing could grow and, bolstered by consecutive droughts, the Dust Bowl reduced a way of life for hundreds of thousands of into a distant memory. Banks and landowners foreclosed on the arid, almost lunar, farms and the families who had seen their livelihood destroyed were forced out into an uncertain future. In keeping with their forefathers over 350,000 newly-destitute Americans desperately decided to strike west in the hopes of a better life in California. The vast majority would not find it.
John Steinbeck had previously been commissioned to write a series of Non-Fiction articles for The San Francisco News called The Harvest Gypsies about the plight of Dust Bowl migrants which had sold over 10,000 copies. He took that informed knowledge to write a novel that crackles with so much fury and injustice that it sometimes feels it might combust in your hands. Steinbeck follows the [mis]fortunes of the Joad family, their travails to cross the thousands of miles of distance to California via Route 66 and the mortal disappointments that await them there. He will frequently pull the perspective up to a more God’s eye perspective to rail at the malfeasance of the banks, landowners and moneyed classes, who both fear the displaced yet are keen to exploit them for cheap labour. Steinbeck found himself accused of communist sympathies for his raging tone, Wrath has been publically burned on several occasions and is the 6th most commonly banned book in American history. Despite [or because of] its notoriety it was the best-selling book of 1939 with more than 430,000 copies printed by February 1940. Novels that set out to hold the writer’s present to account naturally have a way of getting stuck in the past, but there is something about Wrath that is strangely un-tethered to the period it so effectively records. The injustices faced by the forced mass movements of displaced peoples are as relevant as ever and in a world that feels increasingly unstable, The Grapes Of Wrath is as relevant as the day it was written. Pray for a day when it isn’t.