It is embarrassing how many great books I have not read. C and I are readers. Even before we moved to the Ozarks, where there are few entertainment options, we liked to crack open a couple of books and get lost in the pages, most nights. Yet, there are many great books that I have not read.
I recently read “The Grapes of Wrath” for the first time, and I felt like I was reading a lost book of the Old Testament. It was a near-religious experience for me.
The Joad family is an American sect of the clan of Abraham, being driven from Ur by powerful natural forces and traveling across the desert in search of Canaan. The Joads, especially Tom, Ma, and Preacher Casey, live so close to the bones of life that they experience unfiltered the emotions of love and grief, hope and despair, joy and sorrow.
Unfortunately, they are not traveling to Canaan, but rather into the Egypt of empire, where they will become brick makers to the pharaohs of Big Business. Their pilgrimage across the dead plains of North America slowly disintegrates the Joad family, wearing them down one by one, until the demands of empire finally destroy them. They are driven from the slavery of the dust bowl barons, only to journey into the slavery of agri-business giants in California.
There is so much going on in “Grapes” that I feel like Preacher Casey, who says at one point, “I ain’t sleepin’. I got too much to puzzle with.”
There is a timelessness about “Grapes” that makes it simultaneously biblical and topical. For some years now, a great migration of humanity has been traveling across their deserts from Ur in search of Canaan, but instead of coming from the east, they are coming from the south. Border agents find the bones of their dead bleaching in the desert sun, and these Joads are filling the back-roads and hobo camps of America again in search of the land of milk and honey.
But the empire is still here, too. The New Deal created by FDR in direct response to Steinbeck’s Joads is under assault by the empire. Hourly wages are cut; benefits denied; children barred from education and healthcare. The latest caravans of Joads are met again on the outskirts of towns by thugs with clubs and guns, like in the days of Steinbeck. Be they Mexican farm workers or Ozark factory labor, the modern-day Joads are worked to exhaustion, paid poorly, and driven off when no longer useful.
Not much has changed from the Old Testament to Steinbeck’s Joads, and from the Joads to today. Forces beyond our understanding still exist, refugees from life still wander our world, and empire still waits to exploit them. It reminds me that we are all looking for our Canaan, and in desperate need of the Messiah, who proclaims release to the captive.
I ain’t sleepin’. I got too much to puzzle with.