Monday, October 24, 2016

Schole Sisters: The Grapes of Wrath....

The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the house, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men - to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men's faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break. The children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes. Horses came to the watering toughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust. After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and there was no break. Then they asked, What'll we do? And the men replied, I don't know. But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole. The women went into the houses to their work, and the children began to play, but cautiously at first. As the day went forward the sun became less red. It flared down on the dust-blanketed land. The men sat in the doorways of their houses; their hands were busy with sticks and little rocks. The men sat still - thinking - figuring.  (The Grapes of Wrath, p. 6-7)
So ends Chapter One of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  Women watching their husbands and children watching their parents, Steinbeck writes something to this same effect several times throughout the story.  Is this part of our relational nature?  We wait and watch for the reaction of others...not just others, but loved others, anticipating their reaction so we know how to react or what our future holds.  I was very intrigued by this notion.  Ironically, in the end, Ma Joad takes charge and acts more the head of household than any man in the story.  Ma Joad leads the family through cooperation and unity rather than a more typical seat of male authority and control.  When the men get down, she lights fires to keep them alive and going....
Take a man, he can get worried an' worried, an' it eats out his liver, an' purty soon he'll jus' lay down and die with his heart et out.  But if you can take an' make im' mad, why, he'll be awright. Pa, he didn' say nothin', but he's mad cow.  He'll show me now.  He's awright. (Ma Joad, The Grapes of Wrath, p. 481)
The Grapes of Wrath was our most recent Schole Sisters read.  It was controversial to the group.  As a matter of fact, five women started and chose not to finish.  Six women finished, most with some reluctance.   However, the debate over whether The Grapes of Wrath is an important piece of American Literature or crude propaganda is not a new debate.  This Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner has outraged since it was originally written in 1939.  It was the best selling book of 1939 and yet this most widely read novel was also publicly banned and burned.  Interestingly, Steinbeck accomplished exactly what he set out to do...
I am not writing a satisfying story....I've done my damndest to rip a reader's nerves to rags.  (John Steinbeck in a 1939 interview with Pascal Covici)
Steinbeck's epic is set during the Great Depression.  It follows the migration of the Joad family, Oklahoma tenant farmers displaced by foreclosure during the Dust Bowl.  Throughout the novel, the reader travels with the Joads through several states and hardships on their journey to California, where they hope to find work and begin life anew.  However, upon their arrival, the Joads find several workers available for every job posted.  With little work and virtually no money, they wander around like the Israelites searching for the so called "promised land".

There are several biblical parallels in The Grapes of Wrath, much to the chagrin of my Schole Sisters, who also happen to be Christians.  Most in the group couldn't get past numerous profanities, including freely using our Lord's name in vain, and crude sexual discussions, including a preacher confessing to taking sexual advantage of his followers when they were "full of the speret", to see the parallels, especially after one member shared some of Steinbeck's political views.  On the other hand, I was intrigued by his use of biblical symbolism, particularly for a man who resisted doctrine throughout his life, beginning at a young age.

I was first introduced to Steinbeck through The Grapes of Wrath in my high school English class and since have read other Steinbeck novels including East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, and Tortilla Flat.  Each of which has a sort of spiritual quality for lack of better term.  There are many biblical references in Steinbeck's characters, titles of his books, and his passion for the underdog. You can almost see him wrestling with his faith throughout his writing.  Please don't get me wrong, The Grapes of Wrath is not a Christian novel.  I just so happen to find Steinbeck's biblical parallels interesting in what appears to be his humanist view point.

As mentioned, The Grapes of Wrath was assigned reading in my high school English class, as is common.  I was now anxious to re-read the story through adult eyes.  In the beginning, I was seriously questioning whether or not this was an appropriate title for high school reading.  Upon completion, I have decided there is definite value in Steinbeck's novel.  Overall, I would categorize The Grapes of Wrath, along with Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as great American literature.  It is for that reason, I would recommend reading The Grapes of Wrath potentially in the very late high school years (11th or 12th grade).  However, it's a book I find imperative to read and discuss along with your student.

Steinbeck actually toured the Dust Bowl ravished region and traveled with migrants to California in his research shortly before writing The Grapes of Wrath.  Whether you agree or disagree with his Worldview, I believe there is importance in understanding that period of time in the history of our nation as well as the many cultural references found in the book.

In spite of the criticism of my Schole Sisters, I really enjoyed reading The Grapes of Wrath with them.  We plan to continue with another title in the future, possibly something by C. S. Lewis.  For now we will break for the next couple of months as I continue to facilitate a Middle School Socratic Book Club and our Charlotte Mason study group, in which we're reading Consider This, Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition by Karen Glass, in addition to homeschooling and the many other tasks of motherhood.... so many great books, so little time.  Ironically, several of my Schole Sisters are also my Charlotte Mason cohorts :)

I am linking The Grapes of Wrath to the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge in the Re-Read a Classic from School category.

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