Slow Reads: The Grapes Of Wrath Week 7

The idea for this recurring posts is to read a book over the course of 4-6 weeks, and each week to delve deeply into what has been read the previous week. This will allow for a more interesting analysis of the meaning of the book, and allow me to make predictions, in a way that isn’t possible with book reviews. Reading over a number of weeks also lets you read along at the same time if you wish, which will hopefully enrich the discussion.

Spoiler warning obviously

Chapter 20 seems to be a the culmination of all the bleak foreshadowing thus far. The Joad family have arrived at a Hooverville (a decrepit area filled with the rundown tents of the migrants), and it really is a sorry sight. I just can’t get over the fact that the US, supposedly the land of freedom, treated its citizens this atrociously less than a century ago. Worse though is that I’d never even heard of these events before, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

The first thing I want to comment on is the lack of labour protections. Policies of blacklisting and locking up those who lead worker unity movements were widespread. Since there wasn’t a minimum wage, it was easy to do a full days work and still not be able to feed your family. All this build the picture of a time when the rich protected their interests at the expense of the poor very effectively. A picture that looks horribly like today. The US has the worst minimum wage to average wage ratio of all the developed nations that have one, yet there is still significant resistance to raising it. The scariest part, however, is that in the book, the working classes were mostly united against the rich who were feeding off them. This is not the case today. I sometimes wonder if we are too far gone this time, due to changing technologies like social media.

One of the characters bluntly remarks that religion can’t cure hunger. I’ve been seeing the religious themes throughout the book, and haven’t known what to make of them up to this point. Now, it seems to be saying that institutionalized religion cannot provide for you, and might even be a stretch on the money you have (as with the funerals). However, I think there is a place for spirituality in helping keep people grounded during hard times. It gives them something to live for.

There are two more characters who have difficulties adapting this week. One, John, turns to drink, while the other, Connie, abandons his wife and unborn child. I think this is here really to emphasize just how hard this change is. That the manual labourers are so much more worthy often than the those who own the plantations, since so many have such fortitude after surviving in the awful conditions for any amount of time. There isn’t really much to say that I haven’t covered in previous weeks, but I just wanted to draw your attention to the theme reoccurring. I’m sure more of the family will succumb to the conditions before the novel concludes.

There was an incident with stew that really demonstrates just how dire the conditions are. The Joad family turn up and start cooking the remains of the food they brought with them. As soon as the children of the camp smell it, they all crowd around to watch, hoping to get a portion. Ma is heartbroken that she can only give them all the smallest of tastes, and even then she can’t feed the whole family properly. Then one of the kid’s mothers turns up to complain about Ma feeding her child, probably because it makes her feel insecure as a parent. This scene was honestly so hard to read.

There have been many mentions of families being torn apart forever up to this point. Since the internet obviously doesn’t exist, there is a very good chance that if a family split up, they will never see each other again. The frequency of this happening, and the casualness with which it’s discussed, is deeply saddening. While I’ve often focused on the economic costs of the migration, this clearly shows there are social, specifically familial, ones too. It’s so easy to overlook an individual person’s life being ripped apart when we look back in history, and this book does an excellent job of bringing individual pain to the fore.

Another thing that’s barely changed since the novel was written: police abuse of power. I might not be as blatant as falsifying evidence and setting Hooverville ablaze, but it is still very prevalent in our current society. The treatment of economic migrants in the book is very reminiscent of the treatment of ethnic minorities today. Once again, Steinbeck’s masterpiece is extremely relevant still.

When John tries to share his pain, it seems to be taboo. There is a ‘speak no evil’ culture, where a positive mindset should be maintained at all costs, and you shouldn’t burden others with your own problems. This was a pretty forward thinking criticism by Steinbeck, as far as I’m aware. I’m happy to say that, as a society, we are much better when it comes to mental health issues, and sharing our emotions without stigma, although we still have a long way to go. Nevertheless, this was a pleasant reminder of the progress we’ve made, as it can be easy to lose sight of that.

The family has a rebellious streak when it comes to authority. They are a proud people, like so many of the migrants, and so, rightly or wrongly, are stubborn about bowing to those in positions of power. This sometimes means that they ignore or resent good advice that is given to them by people who have already experienced the horrors. This example of the confirmation bias is not surprising, as human have been doing it for centuries, but certainly doesn’t serve them well. Again, this parallels our modern society, with the rise of post-truthism and the anti-intellectual sentiment. However, it does enable them to stand up to those who abuse their power. As long as they keep fighting, they haven’t lost, as the thought goes. My personal worry is that they will be broken by the system before long.

I’m reading chapters 21 & 22 next week. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my analysis and how it relates to the modern world.

Book Review: Numbers

The first thing that struck me about this book is how much it reminded me of Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (a book I love). Both deal with a single character knowing something they shouldn’t about death, and seeing it as a curse. They are both very gritty, dark novels. Yet what set Numbers apart for me was the genuine feel to the working-class main characters.

Jem knows when you’re going to die. She sees it stamped on you from your first meeting, and the knowledge is a burden. When she meets Spider, and sees his death only a few short months away, she knows she shouldn’t get involved. But things don’t always go as planned.

One of my favourite parts of the novel was Rachel Ward’s writing style. She infused a working class spirit throughout her prose, which only ever served to enhance the book, never feeling like a drag on the overall story. This approach could easily feel unnatural, yet I always fully believed in the descriptions. The only small issue I had was that the limited dialogue wasn’t different enough from the prose.

The book is written from Jem’s first person perspective, which I found very effective. I always think that using a first person perspective allows greater empathy with one character when used well, and that’s exactly what happened. I felt Jem’s own sorrow, pain and elation very acutely. More than anything, she comes across as a real human being who I could easily meet in the street tomorrow. I might not have the same intimate connection to Spider, one of the downsides of a first person perspective, but he too comes across as overwhelmingly human.

The secondary characters were a bit hit or miss for me. I really liked the sheer love that emanated from Val, and the openness that Britney showed. Nevertheless, I felt a lot of the characters were pretty shallow. Even Karen, one of the ones that gets the most development, felt like a stereotype of a well-meaning yet perpetually exhausted career. yet this shallowness didn’t bother me much, because the story was about Jem and Spider at its heart.

The plot mostly consisted of a physical and spiritual journey that Jem and Spider go on. I don’t think there was anything particularly special about it, because the character development was the real selling point of the book. However, the pacing was good, and kept me hooked the whole time, and the ending was brilliant. I wasn’t entirely sure which possible ending the author would choose, but I was very happy with the one they did. The epilogue also sets up the sequel nicely, but ignoring that, I felt a nice sense of closure from the novel.

As any of my frequent readers will probably know, I like books with strong themes, and this one didn’t disappoint. It deals with poverty, race and education with a light touch, but it is clearly there if you read between the lines. It primarily focuses on why we have relationships, which is a question dear to my heart.

Overall, I’d give the book a solid 5 out of 7. I love just how real every element of the book feels. I’d highly recommend to anyone who likes character driven fantasy, where the fantasy elements are just a small part of the overall story.

#RRABC Book Review: Wasteland

Today’s book review is special, as it’s part of Rosie’s Review-A-Book Challenge. I’d like to thank Rosie for the free copy of Wasteland I got for the challenge, and I think there is still time to participate if you’re interested. Without further ado, onto the review!

Wasteland just got better and better as I was reading. It might start off slowly, since it’s worldbuilding is monumentally ambitious, but once it gets going it never slows down. The book has plenty to say about family, poverty, activism and democracy, social media, liberty… the list just goes on. I could spend all day dissecting its multifaceted themes. For me, it felt very reminiscent of the Children of Men film.

The novel is set in a dystopian version of the UK far in the future. Most of the population has moved or been moved into megacities – vast urban centres that can meet all needs, so that their residents never have to leave. The government controls almost every aspect of its citizens’ lives, and they are taught not to question. Outside the megacities is the wasteland, home to those who have escaped the government’s iron fist. 

The story centres on Rae, a young woman who has grown up in the orphanage system within a megacity. Upon learning that her family might still be alive, she starts to question what it is that she wants. Along her journey, there is a constant flow of diverse characters – it’s a real strength of the book. We can see the effects of the harsh world upon a whole host of characters, which gives small insights into a whole host of differing viewpoints and allows for interesting discussions of the various themes.

While Rae’s story was great, and she evolved seamlessly throughout the book, it was Dylan’s journey that was a highlight. His part was relatively small, since he was a secondary character, but I believe it to be crucial to understand the human aspect of the government’s policies. He encapsulates the idea that luck has a lot to do with your position in the world, and I found it impossible not to feel for him.

I found that the themes of the book mesh together to act as a study of humanity. It painted a poor picture of us, often being very cynical. Yet, despite all the flaws it exposed, it manages to maintain a spark of hope throughout – the idea that no matter what, humanity will find a way. I also don’t feel that Terry Tyler’s exploration of themes in any way impeded the overall flow of the story, something I’m always wary of when books have a strong message. However, the ambitious nature of the novel did mean that some themes are only touched on at a shallow level. I didn’t find this an issue personally though, since there is more than enough food for thought.

In my opinion, the book really comes into its own in the last 3rd. There was a twist that I didn’t see coming at all, which was great, and then the pace is relentless from there on out. It’s one of those that I just couldn’t put down, since the tension and stakes are so high and I was hugely invested in the characters.

Overall, this book has made me really excited to read more of Terry Tyler’s work. It was really easy to read as a standalone book, despite kind of being a sequel (it’s set in the same world as another book, but many years later). My only small criticism is that the writing occasionally was a bit awkward, so I had to reread bits which I misunderstood because I’d missed a word that was in an unexpected place. However, it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment, and would suggest that you don’t let it put you off in any way. Therefore, I give the book 6 out of 7, and would easily recommend it to lovers of sci-fi and dystopia. I’d also recommend it more widely, but warn that it can be quite bleak in places, so don’t go for it if that’s not your thing.