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Book Club Meeting: Come Talk About 'Grapes Of Wrath,' Chapters 11-20

A family prepares to leave Oklahoma for California in 1939, just as the Joads did in John Steinbeck's <em>The Grapes of Wrath</em>.
Russell Lee
Library of Congress
A family prepares to leave Oklahoma for California in 1939, just as the Joads did in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

We made it to California! And if you're reading along, you, like us, are two-thirds of the way through John Steinbeck's Dust Bowl classic. So it's time again for us to gather and share our thoughts.

We'll get the ball rolling with some of our own observations, but first, a quick update on our third and final book club meeting: We are pleased to announce that National Steinbeck Center scholar-in-residence Susan Shillinglaw will be joining us for our final Grapes of Wrath discussion on April 14 — the book's 75th anniversary — at 3 p.m. ET right here on Monkey See. Shillinglaw is also the former director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University, and her new book is called On Reading the Grapes of Wrath.

OK! Here's what we have to say about chapters 11 to 20:

Colin: Our discussion last time got me thinking more closely about the intercalary (thanks for that word, scout11!) sections in this meeting's crop of chapters — and, more specifically, why they always seem to lead the ones about the Joads. We always get a glimpse of all the migrant workers first, before the lens of the text zooms in for a better look at Tom and the family. In fact, the family seems to be so swamped in interludes that it might be just as accurate to call the Joads intercalary, examples given by Steinbeck to punctuate his greater thesis: It's not the individual that matters so much as the group that discovers common needs, common lives. In this sense, the migrants moving West are beginning to strike me like a force of nature in their own right, as grand and dangerous and powerful as the dust storms that set them moving in the first place.

Beth: Ma — who has emerged as one of the fiercest, wisest, most bad-ass characters in the last few chapters — said something to Rose of Sharon in Chapter 18 that really struck me. She says:

"When you're young, Rosasharn, ever'thing that happens is a thing all by itself. It's a lonely thing. ... They's a time of change, an' when that comes, dyin' is a piece of all dyin', and bearin' is a piece of all bearin', and bearin' and dyin' is two pieces of the same thing. An' then things ain't lonely any more. An' then a hurt don't hurt so bad, 'cause it ain't a lonely hurt no more."

Ma links birth and death — and all of us to one another — in a way that feels simultaneously beautiful and sad and comforting and true. Later in that chapter, Granma lies dying as her granddaughter shares a passionate moment with Connie. "In the heat [Rose of Sharon and Connie] struggled together, and held their breaths." In the next paragraph, Ma could feel Granma's "struggling body and the struggling heart; and the sobbing breath was in her ear." The dying grandmother and the young lovers are linked with parallel language of struggle and breath. As Ma says: "bearin' and dyin' is two pieces of the same thing."

Camila: The middle of high school seems like EXACTLY the wrong time to read this book. All the traditional milestones of American adolescence are totally irrelevant or nonexistent — you know, like the struggle to define yourself in opposition to your family, or find a solid group of friends, or learn to be yourself despite peer pressure. (Peers? What peers? At least in the first two-thirds of the book, communities are shifting constantly). In fact, there aren't really any adolescents at all. You certainly get the sense that Al was a teenager, and would be in any other circumstance, but not on this trip. He can't even sneak a drink — Tom shuts down Al's plea for a little fun, because they have to be responsible, help the family. So there are kids, and then there are contributing adults, and there's really no one in between. I can see how that would make it hard for lots of high school students — not-kids who are constantly told they're not adults — to connect to it.

Nicole: These chapters had so many great bits about land and how California owners use (or misuse) it. There's the newspaper baron who owns a million unfarmed acres on the coast, seemingly just for show; the migrants who get caught illegally gardening unused land; and descriptions of California farms being run like businesses that only raise one crop, never the variety that could support a family. And then there's the outrage of seeing perfectly good land go unfarmed:

"A homeless hungry man, driving the roads with his wife beside him and his thin children in the back seat, could look at the fallow fields which might produce food but not profit, and that man could know how a fallow field is a sin and the unused land a crime against the thin children."

And when owners do farm the land, they fill their fields with degrading "stoop crops":

"A man may stand to use a scythe, a plow, a pitchfork; but he must crawl like a bug between the rows of lettuce, he must bend his back and pull his long bag between the cotton rows, he must go on his knees like a penitent across a cauliflower patch."

It drives home an idea from the beginning of the book: This new farming system wasn't built for workers, it was built for business.

What did you guys think? We'll be hanging out in the comments section of this post today, starting at 3 p.m. ET, to talk about what we've read so far.

Update, 4 p.m.: We're signing off for now, but don't let that stop you! Our next and final meeting will take place April 14, at 3 p.m., ET, on Monkey See.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nicole Cohen is an education editor at NPR. Prior to joining the Education Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Arts Desk, where she produced and edited arts features and interviews for NPR.org. She was part of the team that created NPR's annual Book Concierge, a collection of the year's best books as chosen by NPR staff and critics. Her other arts features include This Is Color and the podcast recommendation site Earbud.fm. She also coordinated the Web presence for Fresh Air.