Last week we reviewed a book from the 1920’s. This week your Reading Passport journey continues with a look at one of the defining books of the 1930’s. This decade brought an attitude of austerity following the Great Depression captured in all its tragedy and hardship in the writings of John Steinbeck and his classic novel “The Grapes of Wrath”.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck wrote a detailed record of the the unbearable hardships of the share-croppers whose livelihoods were destroyed by the dust storms that hit the Midwest in the 1930s. When Tom Joad is released from Oklahoma State Penitentiary he heads back to his old farm, only to find it abandoned and his family driven out, like so many other tenant farmers, by an environmental catastrophe and unsympathetic landlords. When he catches up with them he shares their arduous journey to California where they have been promised work as fruit pickers, only to find that life in the west is every bit as bad as the life they have left behind.

The novel is like the depression era photographs of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, able to show ruined landscapes in wide angle shots as well as highly detailed close-ups of individual characters. The effect is hugely emotional. From the beginning the novel is full of bold, but disciplined pathos. There are documentary sections on life in the migrant camps interspersed with the Joad’s narrative story. Desperate men and women think aloud, and there are many memorable scenes such as a nail-bitingly tense birth in a storm, and one of the most haunting final images in fiction.

If you like John Steinbeck’s style and gritty realism you might also like to read his 1937 novella “Of Mice and Men”, the friendship between two itinerant farm labourers – George Milton and the feeble minded Lennie Small.