May 8, 2012

What is the magic in John Steinbeck’s brilliant novel Grapes of Wrath

When I read John Steinbeck’s novel in the 70s I immediately decided to buy another copy so I could one day leave each child a book. It was the most brilliant read for me for coming from South Africa and reading an epic novel set in the Salinas Valley in the 30s. It was Steinberg’s masterpiece after a long struggle to get published, even in New York. He returned to the Salinas Valley and wrote the book of his life. His descriptions of his characters are so detailed that I read some paragraphs several times. Here is a description of one of the characters.

Excerpt on page 5

“The man’s clothes were new – all of them, cheap and new. His gray cap was so new that the visor was still stiff and the button still on, not shapeless and bulged as it would be when it had served for a while all the various purposes of a cap – carrying sack, towel, handkerchief. His suit was of cheap gray hard cloth and so new that there were creases in the trousers.”

Grapes of Wrath is a masterpiece and filled with descriptions you read many times to savor the beauty and magic of his writing. You can see the images drifting before you, feel the hot sun beating down on your back, the dust in your mouth and the poverty in the man’s eye. But, it is the description of the turtle trying to cross the road on a scorching day in the Salinas Valley and sees a truck approaching which makes me read it several times. The excerpt is a few pages long; here is a fragment.

Excerpt on page 14

“And over the grass at the roadside a land turtle crawled, turning aside for nothing, dragging his high-domed shell over the grass. His hard legs and yellow nailed feet threshed slowly through the grass, but boosting and dragging his shell along. The barley beards slid off his shell, and the clover burrs fell on him and rolled to the ground. His horny beak was partly open, and his fierce, humorous eyes, under brows like fingernails, stared straight ahead.”

The book is chock full of vivid descriptions, and the story of the Joad family is so powerfully told that I read it every two years. As a writer I can only realize that kind of writing in my dreams. He is a master storyteller and will remain my number one author.

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