A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What 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.
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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.
Talk to your kids 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?
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