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We need to talk about Steinbeck.

We need to talk about Steinbeck.
March 19, 2013 Mary Jo


I arrived at Steinbeck in a roundabout way, but from this vantage point the journey seemed inevitable.

Last summer’s drought was one to inspire the casual and not-so- use of the phrase “Dust Bowl.”  The summer months were peppered with the moniker, the frequency of its usage increasing in direct proportion to the distance from the last measured rainfall. I should mention now that weather forecasting has become quite sensationalized of late. (every winter storm they’ve foretold lately has been referred to as THE STORM OF THE CENTURY, only to yield 6 or less inches)  I should also mention that in no way does the climate of Wisconsin compare to that of the arid cycles of the actual dust bowl region near the panhandle of Oklahoma.  (this I understand much better thanks to The Dust Bowl documentary by Ken Burns)  Still, the phrase “not since the Dust Bowl of the ’30s” played on in the soundtrack of the summer.

Simultaneously playing, as it had been for the entire year, was the Sigh No More album by Mumford and Sons.  Not one to pay attention to song titles, I listened for months and months without noting the track titled “Dust Bowl Dance.”

I was also taking to heart the words of Stephen King in his advice to would-be writers: read, absorb the work of writers who embody the craft.  I went to my bookshelf and pulled off Hemingway and a stack of others.  Who else? I wondered.  Dust bowl, dust bowl, dust bowl, dust bowl droned on in my subconscious. Steinbeck! It seemed like a good time to revisit some of the classics.

I opened to the first page of The Grapes of Wrath with the same resolve one might use when starting a workout program or substituting a health food for what they really want to eat.  This is going to be good for me.  But I probably won’t love it.  I had read the book in high school and don’t remember being particularly moved.

But I was wrong.  So wrong.  I quickly realized that I had not read it in school, that there was no way that these words had washed over me before, even in a less mature incarnation.  By the time I had reached the heartbreakingly beautiful introduction of Ma, it became the book that I could neither put down nor read too feverishly, for fear of running out of pages.

“Her full face was not soft; it was controlled, kindly.  Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family…and since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself.  And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials…she seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall…”

All this on page 74, well before the meat of the tragic story that we’re all vaguely familiar with.  To build up laughter out of inadequate materials. There is a noble life goal if ever I’ve heard one.  In awe, I turned to Andrew. “They should make EVERYONE read this book,” I declared, fully aware of the irony dripping onto the pillowcase.

Fast-forward a month or so to that same pillowcase, this time in our tent.  I read a few more pages before drifting off to sleep in the makeshift campground we inhabited on the night before Mumford and Sons would take the stage in their Gentleman of the Road tour.  The words were fresh on my mind as we stood transfixed the next night, taking in the powerful swelling of crowd energy as the synergy of it all hit me like a ton of bricks.  I seemed to hear the lyrics of “Dust Bowl Dance” for the first time.

Andrew’s reading The Grapes of Wrath now, and I’m finding similar literary enjoyment in East of Eden.  Again I’m struck by how relevant the text is 60 years later.

“And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years.  It was always that way.”


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