There are many books considered ‘classics’ which end up on almost all the well-known ‘Top 100’ or ‘Must read’ lists. Many of them, as I’ve been continuing my race against old age to work through my literary bucket list before I give the aforementioned utensil a good kick, have turned out to be worth neither the wait nor the effort to read them. Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ (despite loving ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’) was one such example – there are many more. I’m often left with a sense of disappointment when selecting one of the ‘time-tested’ classics.
But if ever a book deserved to remain in the canon of ‘classic’ and ‘must read’ it is Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. My goodness what a magnificent novel this is in almost every respect.
Some books, which cover a particular period of history in a particular country, often leave me cold. I have no vested interest in either the culture or the history and the book does nothing to change my mind. ‘Cutting for Stone’ for Abraham Verghese is a good example of this for me.
Steinbeck however, brought me into the great depression of 1930s America with ease. A period I knew of, but had no real interest in, came alive in his hands. Part of this was the brilliant idea of regularly alternating chapters of the main narrative with chapters which gave a little tableau of life in general during that period of time. Those snapshots are breathlessly fast – so much so it feels like there are no full stops in the sentences at times – and I was often left reeling after finishing a chapter as my mind, going off on a dozen tangents, struggled to keep up with action described.
But the author also makes us care about the characters despite writing at a time before the need for such empathy with characters was so important as it is in today’s literature. Not unlike his excellent ‘Of Mice and Men’ Steinbeck succeeds in making us want to know what happens next to these people. He wounds us by taking major characters out in a flash at times. There’s no pomp and circumstance to their leaving: one minute they’re there and the next they’re gone. But this, I think, is deliberate because this is just what happened to the poor during the ‘dust bowl’ period where families starved and men were shot dead and left to rot. I felt not so much that I read about the depression era but that I lived it.
The ending, which I thought I could see coming and was wrong, was brilliantly poignant and both heart-crushingly sad and full of hope at the same time. This, for me, was the final ribbon tied in a bow for me and secured that book as a great, great classic. Steinbeck comes across as a stern man. He writes like a man and seems to think like a man. Yet he understands the common folk too – men and women – and hides pathos in full view. You only realise it as you’re coming towards the end of the book. When I finished the last word of the last sentence on the final page, I was surprised to find tears in my eyes. I wondered just where they’d come from, I was that unprepared. This is surely the essence of a great book: to take you emotionally to somewhere you didn’t expect to be.
My final verdict then? You can keep your Hemingway and your Conrad: Steinbeck is the man’s man for me.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page.
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org