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The Grapes of Wrath

Gritty Steinbeck classic brings Great Depression to life.

What parents need to know

Educational value

The Great Depression comes vividly to life: Readers get a full picture of the forces that shaped the massive migration west and fed growing political, economic, and social tension. The story of the Joad family is a jumping-off point for exploring labor history, economic principles, midcentury politics, and more.

Positive messages

While Ma Joad is obsessed with keeping her family intact, during their journey west they broaden their sense of family as they make human connections through hardship. Even characters who are struggling to survive generally have compassion for others. In one camp, migrants are treated civilly and organize themselves into a well-run society, even thwarting an attempt by bullying outsiders to cause trouble.

Positive role models

Ma Joad is a pillar of strength, rolling with the punches and adapting family roles as needed. The family around her struggle more, but they stay true to their values. Many of their fellow travelers are generous and proud, despite their circumstances, and they encounter a few onlookers who are sympathetic to their struggle.


Tom Joad was imprisoned for killing a man during a fight. A family friend is slain, and Tom kills the assailant. Several characters refer to beating women and children for disobedience, but no such violence is carried out. A woman’s hand is shot off and some peripheral characters suffer severe malnutrition and starvation. Many anecdotes focus on violence: a family member gored by a bull, a neighbor’s baby eaten by a pig, ancestors who killed Indians, and more. Two elderly relatives in the Joad family die during the journey and a baby is stillborn.


While there are no vivid scenes, sexual references abound. A preacher laments his promiscuity, Al Joad is constantly pursuing women, pregnant Rose of Sharon has surreptitious sex with her fiancé, who later abandons her, and anecdotes refer to animal copulation and “pounding.”


It’s an appropriately foul-mouthed novel: The curse words, which come fast and heavy, include: "bastard," "goddamn," "damn," "hell," "sons-a-bitches," "asshole," and "bitch." The “N” word is also used a few times.

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Several characters smoke and there are references to drinking. One man copes with stress and trauma by deliberately getting drunk. The family sedates Old Grampa Joad by mixing a large dose of "soothin' syrup" into his coffee to get him woozy after he refuses to comply with Ma Joad.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about sharecroppers struggling to survive the Great Depression, fleeing the Dust Bowl in Oaklahoma for California, is as harsh and gritty as its time. There’s drinking, smoking, swearing, and extramarital sex, and violence stalks the Joad family and their fellow migrants. But its realism and passion have made it a must-read for generations. Families may want to follow up the book with a viewing of the well-regarded 1940 film version.

What's the story?

Tom Joad, paroled after killing a man in a fight, returns to the family homestead in Oklahoma only to find his family gone, forced out as the banks seized failing farms. He and Casy, a former preacher, catch up with and join the family fleeing West to California, lured by tales of good work for good wages. At the center of the story is Ma Joad, surrounded by Pa Joad, his parents, six children, and one future in-law. Money and options are in short supply, but the family gets by with help from strangers. Their arrival in California is bitter: Fruit is left to rot as workers compete for low pay. The surviving Joads scrabble for food, shelter, and work. Even when they have nothing, they still find something to give to a starving man.

Is it any good?


This visceral novel succeeds as a gripping story and a piece of history. John Steinbeck, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, alternates chapters following the Joads’ saga with poetic interludes detailing the larger forces at work against the migrants. 

Steinbeck, who visited migrant camps to research the book, skillfully illustrates the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots. His sympathies are obviously with the desperate families (to the point where he was accused of communist sympathies), but he treats the comfortable classes with empathy: Lack of knowledge and understanding reinforces suspicion and hatred of the migrants, who for their part can’t understand why they’re so vilified. It’s an important lesson on perspective, and a fantastic starting point for discussing political, economic, and social issues still very relevant today.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the themes of economic disparity and power during the Great Depression and in the decades since. What has changed for the working classes since Steinbeck’s novel? What hasn’t? How does the conversation today about the haves and have-nots compare with what people were taking about the 1930s?

  • Steinbeck lays bare the ways prejudices take shape and are reinforced. Consider a group of people subject to discrimination in America today and explore the roots of prejudice against them.

  • Natural disaster and technological advances combine to cause the massive displacement of the 1930s. Families can discuss more recent disasters that have triggered internal displacement. For example, how has Hurricane Katrina in 2005 changed New Orleans and the country?

  • Struggling to survive, the migrants stick together. They typically help each other rather than acting in self-interest alone. But in modern survival tales, such as disaster films, survivors often act selfishly, discarding community unless it serves their needs (such as protection). Do you think one depiction is truer to human spirit than the other?

Book details

Author:John Steinbeck
Genre:Historical Fiction
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Penguin Classics
Publication date:January 8, 2002
Number of pages:464

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Teen, 17 years old Written byabbacus June 8, 2012

Great for teens and adults.

I really liked it.
What other families should know
Great messages
Great role models
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking
Teen, 17 years old Written byLittle Cupcake July 14, 2013

Thoughtful Novel is Interesting but not Entertaining

This book was... thoughtful. I cannot say it was entertaining, because it was not in the least. However, Steinbeck's very realistic portrayal of humble sharecropper life is rather interesting. It is rare in which a writer pays so much attention to the little things in life, like how mothers cook and how young children mess around. This story is admirable in that it was so realistic and human. However, if you were looking for a thrilling and entertaining read, this is not the book for you. But if you want a novel that is historical and has room for thought, I highly recommend this to you. By the way, this is not for young kids. It has some rather mature elements, like a detailed description of the birth of a child (stillborn) and plenty of references to promiscuity and "tom-catting". There is also some violence, but not gore. This is best for older teens.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Too much violence
Too much swearing