Thursday, November 7, 2013

You Can't Always Trust a First Impression

Currently Reading: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One of the reasons I’ve really enjoyed this reading project is that it’s not only introduced me to novels and authors that I’ve fallen in love with and that I might otherwise never have sought out on my own (i.e. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), but it’s also given me the opportunity to revisit books and authors of which I’ve formed unfair opinions during my formative years (i.e. George Orwell, The Hobbit). The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck gave me just such an opportunity.

I owe John Steinbeck one serious apology for all the name bashing I've done over the years.

Like Orwell, I had a bad English class experience with Steinbeck. (Actually, both of those bad experiences and my bad experience with The Hobbit all were in the same class... that can't be a coincidence...) In 8th grade, my English teacher assigned us The Pearl and I distinctly remember it as the most painful reading experience I had had to that point in my life. I remember The Pearl as having a very unbalanced ratio of plot to description and that the description was excruciatingly detailed. It felt like Steinbeck would depict every ring and bump on a log in a swamp even when both log and swamp were irrelevant to the plot. Admittedly, I have zero memory of the plot beyond that some guy finds a pearl. Even that summary I'm only 10% confident is accurate.

I would like to say, though, that I would imagine my early, negative impressions of Animal Farm and The Pearl would radically change if I read them again now, much as was the case when I re-read The Hobbit. So these anecdotes should not dissuade you from reading either.

Unfortunately, the damage had been done for Steinbeck and he could not redeem himself, even with the dialogue-heavy and thoroughly enjoyable Of Mice and Men that I read the following year.

So it was with a hint of trepidation that I began The Grapes of Wrath. The first two chapters were tainted with my deeply-ingrained, 8th-grade opinion and I internally groaned for most of them. Then, horror of horror!, the book included dialect writing, a pet peeve of mine. Strike two. The third seemed inevitable and I dreaded the trudge through the rest of the novel.

Then something amazing happened. I can't even really pinpoint when it happened, but at some point I started to loosen my grip on my long held belief that Steinbeck was the worst writer ever. Once that happened, I actually realized that the opposite is true.

I loved this book!! It was beautiful, sad, and eye-opening. It revealed a somber chapter of America's history to me that had only been a fact in textbooks before. I had never fully grasped the awful exploitation that occurred during this migration. It made me appreciate and truly understand the rise of unions and labor laws.

Despite initial prejudices against the characters (especially Tom Joad who had the extreme misfortune of being the first to appear and therefore the most heavily subjected to my irrational anti-Steinbeck thoughts), I came to deeply care and hurt for these characters. They are tough and go through misfortune after misfortune (it really hit a point when every time there's a moment of happiness, I internally flinched and thought, Oh God, now what's going to happen?? Can't they catch a break??) and still they retain their sense of compassion, humanity, and dignity. 

My absolute favorite part of the book - which has sold me on Steinbeck's writing genius - is the way he narrows and widens the scope of the story. While the focus is on the Joad family and their particular sad saga, Steinbeck includes alternating chapters that tell the generalized story of nameless, faceless families, only referring to them as "Pa," "Ma," etc. It was a brilliant way to drive home how universal these experiences of suffering were at this time in American history; the Joads were not just exceptionally unlucky. Hundreds of families were all subjected to these horrors and abuses. By weaving in the faceless, nameless anecdotes, Steinbeck almost seems to imply that this very easily could have happened to the reader or his family. It's just such a clever way to really get the reader to understand the scale and yet to evoke his empathy for this specific family.

So, Mr. Steinbeck, I hereby solemnly and profusely apologize.

And if you haven't read The Grapes of Wrath, go do so immediately!

No comments:

Post a Comment