Saturday, September 15, 2007

My Mother's Story on Every Page

I grew up hearing stories of my grandfather's suddenly lost security and the family's sneaking away in the night in order to save the wagon, the team of horses, and as many of my grandmother's saved possessions as could be packed in a few hour's time. I often visited my Uncle Lloyd, a tenant farmer living a half hour's drive away, and remember the moving day for he and his family when the property owner served notice of eviction. He took a job as janitor at my school, a broken and angry man as I recall him now.

Though the losses suffered in my mother's family only echo those detailed in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, the recollection of their frequent retelling punctuated page after page throughout my reading experience. The characters became real for me; their determination became mine, and I felt the shared responsibility to discipline a willing anger in response to the inhumanity of tolerated yet totally unnecessary deprivation.

I remember my father crouched in a three-point stance of consideration, gathered with other men in conference and reinforced by the confidence of the women encircling them. I was among the children sent to play with a promise of Cracker Jacks. All these memories made it easy to read Steinbeck's Pa and Uncle John, Tom and Al, and the preacher, Casy, as if they were near kin. I might have mistaken Aunt Esther as a model for Steinbeck's Ma, the character with whom I most identified, a representative of strength I most envied.

Critically, I found the female characters - those beyond Steinbeck's Ma - to be less meaningfully composed, less individually consistent than male characters, and I often found myself wanting more from Rose of Sharon and Ruthie. An abundance of female characters written only incidental into the story seemed a best attempt to answer that need: the the truck stop waitress on one occasion and a trio of caring women on another exemplify a sampling of those stitched together in a kind of patchwork quilt of the female presence overlaying the novel as a whole. Yet the story carried me, caught up my attention, and wouldn't let me go.

I didn't want it to end. I had read the last pages ahead of beginning the book, and I knew Steinbeck would abandon me, that he would leave the missing chapters - the rest of the story - to be written in me. Even though overly sentimental by my measure, I recognized Tom's departing speech to Ma as the only readerly direction Steinbeck would give, and I didn't want to be left in the rain without an answer - drafted to a fight that would have to come off the page if the story Steinbeck began would ever find it's ending. Ma knew the trouble there would be and reasoned against her son's departure: "Tom, they'll drive ya and cut ya down .... they might kill ya an' I wouldn' know. They might hurt ya ... Then what, Tom?" And Tom's answer,

Then it don' matter, Ma. Then I'll be all aroun' in the dark. I'll be ever'where - wherever you look. wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there ... I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an' - I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build - why, I'll be there. See? (572)
Kenneth Burke's guiding sensibility that literature is best experienced as "equipment for living" finds fertile ground for me in Grapes of Wrath. The language sometimes dances, and the characters are sometimes so real that I think to tell one or another of them about a job I just found available before remembering myself, the book, and the pages where they are alone real - only there. But I am nonetheless another person at the end of this novel than I was when it began - a better person. I move more peacefully now, more determined to listen past the noise, and clearly in more possession of myself. There is enough to be angry about, and when the time is right, I am able to be angry, but there is enough reason to love, too, and more reason to draw together now than to push one another apart. So much of what my mother was trying to say in her stories finally comes clear for me in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.

My mother has never been much of a reader, and a book of some 600-plus pages long will scare the bejiggers out of her for sure, but she's getting Steinbeck for Christmas - audio and text. She just might find enough support and encouragement in the combination to make it all the way to the end. i'll get her started and leave the rest to Steinbeck. I am certain of this: If anyone can hold her attention, he can, and no other book will go the distance that this book does to make sense of the stories she remembers, the stories she has given to me. Good reading, Mom.

Quotes I Note:

They's a guy in McAlester - lifer. he studies all the time. He's sec'etary of the warden - writes letters an' stuff like that. Well, he's one hell of a bright guy an' reads law an/ all stuff like that. Well, I talked to him one time about her, 'cause he reads so much stuff. an' he says it don't do no good to read books. Says he's read ever'thing ... an' he says se makes less sense now than she did before he starts readin'. (75)

Ma cleared her throat. "It ain't kin we? It's will we? she said firmly. "As far as 'kin,' we can't do nothin', not go to California or nothin'; bas as far as 'will,' why, we'll do what we will." (139)

Al asked, "Ain't you think' what's it gonna be like when we get there? ... "No," [Ma] said quickly. "no, I ain't. You can't do that. I can't do that. It's too much - livin' too many lives. Up ahead they's a thousan' live we might live, but when it comes, it'll on'y be one. If I go ahead on all of 'em, it's too much. You got to live ahead 'cause you're so young, but - it's jus' the road goin' by for m
e. (168)

They's times when how you feel got to be kep' to yourself. (413)

And thinking about Abe ...
"You got more sense, Tom. I don' need to make you mad, I got to lean on you. Them others - they're kinda strangers, all but you. You won't give up, Tom.
"I don't like it," he said. "I wanta go out like Al. An' I wanta get mad like Pa, an' I wana get drunk like Uncle John."
Ma shook her head. "You can't, Tom. I know. I knowed from the time you was a little fella. You can't. They's some folks that's just theirself an' nothin' more. There's Al - he's jus' a young fella after a girl. You wasn't never like that, Tom."
"Sure I was," said Tom. "Still am."
"No you ain't. Ever'thing you do is mor'n you. When they sent you up to prison I knowed it. You're spoke for."
"Now, Ma - cut that out. It ain't true. It's all in your head."
"Maybe. Maybe it's in my head. Rosasharn, you wipe up these here an' put 'em away." (482)

The evening was hot, and the thrust of light still flowed up from the western horizon. And without any signal the family gathered by the truck, and the congress, the family government, went into session. (135)

Steinbeck, John. Grapes of Wrath. New York: Book of the Month Club, 1997.


Sentinel 47 said...

really enjoyed the way you tied family history -- of generations -- into the Grapes of Wrath commentary... and I REALLY enjoyed the photos!

Wil said...

I recall, at age 12 or so, when reading Steinbeck's "Travels With Charley" that he did a masterful job of describing men and their thoughts. But his women were mere caricatures of themselves. Still, I'd recommend either book in a heartbeat.

Anonymous said...

I can recommend 'The Worst Hard Time,' by Tim Egan, which I recently gave to my mom. She was born in the early '30s, so she was conscious during the tail end of the depression, but too young to understand it at the time. She's really enjoyed the book.

There's also a really interesting TV show that was on HBO called 'Carnivale,' though it uses the depression more as a jumping-off point for fantasy than as a story to document. Worth watching.