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Journey to a promised land

03 November 2017

Malcolm Doney revisits John Steinbeck’s affecting novel The Grapes of Wrath


The dirty 1930s: severe dust-storms in the American prairies

The dirty 1930s: severe dust-storms in the American prairies

NOW and again, you come across a book that changes your life. The Grapes of Wrath did that to me. I must have been in my late teens when I first read it, and, while I can’t say that its impact was immediate or dramatic, the story worked on my insides, rather in the way that those good bacteria in live yogurt are meant to.

I was a young Evangelical Christian, brought up with a black-and-white vision of sin and salvation, and a strong sense of humankind’s inherent depravity. In our church, we prided ourselves on being “biblical”, and I cannot work out whether it is apposite or ironic that it took a novel with all sorts of biblical redolences to erode some of my inbred certainties about humanity.

The Grapes of Wrath is the quintessential novel of the Dust Bowl years of 1930s America. This was a time when, in the course of a decade, some 75 per cent of the topsoil was blown away in the Plains states. Poor farming families — no longer able to make a living from the land — were forced to move from the homes their people had inhabited for generations, in search of work. It is estimated that, in one year alone, 86,000 people headed for California, as part of the largest migration in the United States’ history.

John Steinbeck’s story focuses on the emblematic Joad family, who set off for California, a promised land, lured by the weasel words of a mass-produced handbill offering its own version of a destination flowing with milk and honey: work, sunshine, abundance. Twelve of them across three generations — like the tribes of Israel — embark on a wilderness journey in their creaking, customised jalopy, piled high with all that they can realistically carry.

The calamity of the Dust Bowl was something that journalistic cliché tends to dub “a disaster of biblical proportions”. And Steinbeck’s narrative has a deliberately biblical timbre. Themes of sin, grace, faith, doubt, sacrifice, and redemption are interwoven into the story of the Joads’ epic journey west.

Steinbeck also interleaves the particular trials of the Joads and their fellow pilgrims with what he called “pace changers”: chapters where the narrator offers the equivalent of an almost stately, scriptural “voice-over”. This describes, among other things, the seismic shifts in the US economy, and the forces at play in the lives of agrarian communities as this drama is played out.

“And the migrants streamed in on the highways and their hunger was in their eyes. . . When there was work for a man, ten men fought for it — fought with a low wage. If that fella’ll work for thirty cents, I’ll work for twenty-five. . . And all this was good, for wages went down and prices stayed up. The great owners were glad and they sent out more handbills. . .”.

Of these passages, Steinbeck said: “With the rhythms and symbols of poetry one can get into the reader — open him up.”

What opened me up was the profound humanity with which Steinbeck drew his characters: the Joads are a pickle of a family, each with his or her own distinctive piquancy. They are not angelic, but veined with flaws: anger, fear, jealousy, lust, selfishness, greed. But neither are they wicked. Having been reared on Isaiah’s words that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags,” I found myself responding to Steinbeck’s generosity, warmed by his forgiving spirit, and his understanding of the effect of circumstance on people’s lives.

I discovered fellow-feeling with Tom Joad, the central character, and his burning rage against injustice; with his Pa’s disillusion and disabling sense of loss; with Tom’s brother Al’s unformed, impatient ambition. And I felt enfolded into the bosom of the family’s lodestone, Ma Joad, whose goodness and strength hold the family together: “a woman so great with love” that she draws everyone in. As someone they crossed paths with said on their journey: “You folks is good folks.”

I both recognised, and was embarrassed by, the “Jesus-lovers [who] sat with hard condemning faces and watched the sin” on the fringes of a camp-site dance. And I was, guiltily, captivated by the tentative humility of Casy, the preacher who had “lost” his traditional faith, and yet who, in so doing, was set free on a Christlike sacrificial mission: “I’m gonna be near to folks. I ain’t gonna try to teach ’em nothin’. I’m gonna try to learn. . . Gonna cuss an’ swear an’ hear the poetry of folks talkin’. All that’s holy, that’s what I didn’ understan’. All them things is the good things.”

The Grapes of Wrath is an epic journey for the reader as well as the Joads. At least, it was for me. It isn’t neutral, and it is not without sentimentality. But, in a world where migration has become almost commonplace and threatens us with compassion fatigue, this is a story that makes us feel, that makes us understand, why people need to uproot themselves in order to survive. In this sense, it is a true story — one whose elemental final scene has haunted me ever since.

The Revd Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is published by Penguin at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-241-98034-7.


Steinbeck said that in The Grapes of Wrath he had “done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags”. How far does this statement reflect your experience of the novel?

What did you make of the novel’s switches in focus between the Western migration in general, and the Joad family in particular?

What are the pastoral implications of The Grapes of Wrath for individuals, church communities, and the wider Church?

What did you think of the discussions of sin in the novel?

To what extent is The Grapes of Wrath a novel about people “caught in something larger than themselves”?

What part does Casy play in the novel? How compelling did you find him as a character?

“Woman can change better’n a man”: how far do men’s and women’s positions change over the course of the book?

How compelling did you find Steinbeck’s portrayal of the relationship within families and communities, and between insiders and outsiders?

What relevance do you think The Grapes of Wrath has for us in 21st-century Britain?

What did you make of the novel’s final chapters? What light do they shed on the novel as a whole?


IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 1 December, we will print extra information about our next book, The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham. It is published by Vintage at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-78470-159-8.

Book notes

Set in a foggy and bleak post-war London, The Tiger in the Smoke is widely recognised as one of the finest examples of the mid-century crime thriller. The “tiger” is the fearsome and repellent Jack Havoc, an escaped convict who is the prime suspect for a series of violent murders. Allingham’s hallmark gentleman detective, Albert Campion, has a relatively unobtrusive presence in this novel, which is characterised less by its plot than by its insightful portrayals of the complexities of human nature. One of Allingham’s later novels, Tiger is a nuanced contemplation of motive, madness, and the nature of good and evil.

Author notes

One of the foremost writers of the “Golden Age” of detective fiction, Margery Allingham was born in London, and published her first novel in 1923 at the age of 19. Considered a “shining light” by her contemporary, Agatha Christie, Allingham is best remembered for her series of novels featuring the private detective Albert Campion, published from 1929 to 1965. A lifelong lover of London, Allingham kept a flat there, and knew the city and its inhabitants well, often walking the streets to look, listen, and start conversations. It is these habits, together with a talent for character study, that have led many to compare her to Charles Dickens. Allingham died in 1966.


Books for the next two months:

January: Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud.

February: Anatomy of a Soldier by Harry Parker.

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