The American Library Association promotes the celebration of Banned Books Week every September to celebrate the freedom to read in spite of attempts at censorship. For Banned Books Week this year, I asked my friends to recommend a "banned book" and my friend Toni suggested "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck, which was published in 1939.
According to Ann K. Symons, president of the American Library Association (1998–1999): "The Grapes of Wrath, number 10 on the list [Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century], has been one of the most vilified works since its publication in 1939. Burned at the St. Louis (Mo.) Public Library immediately after publication, it also was banned from the Buffalo (N.Y.) Public Library because of 'vulgar words.' It was challenged in the Greenville (S.C.) schools because it used the names of God and Jesus 'in a vain and profane manner' and was banned in Kern County (Calif.) where the story was set. It continues to be one of the most challenged books in schools and libraries."
The book was written in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. It is estimated that between 1930 and 1940, approximately 3.5 million people moved out of the Midwest due to the hard economic conditions and drought plaguing the area.
Steinbeck's novel follows the fictional Joad family from Oklahoma to California after their land is taken. They join a mass exodus across Route 66 -- thousands of people fleeing a dying way a life and hoping to start anew. Handbills have circulated throughout the area promising work on farms and orchards in California, and entire families pack what they can and sell the rest so they can head off in search of these jobs and the promise of a paradise that awaits them.
Of course, there were far more handbills than there were jobs, and hundreds of thousands of families take the bait. For every job there might be in California, there are a hundred men trying to get that job. Though the jobs are often only temporary for the harvest, the men are so desperate for money to feed their families that they outbid each other for lower wages. The property owners in California take full advantage of this, and the poor migrants can't afford to eat even if they do find jobs.
Police in the area are cruel and brutal, beating and arresting any migrants who try to stand up for themselves. Locals often burn down the migrant camps to try to run them out of town. Thousands relinquish their dignity just to try to survive, and many still perish -- from beatings, from starvation -- or go missing.
Throughout the novel, we watch as the Joad family is slowly whittled down as members die or disappear. We never find out what happens to those who leave the core family group -- just as the group itself would be left to wonder and never know the fates of those who left. Without phones or even permanent homes, getting separated from a family member often meant never seeing them again.
We witness their struggle just to survive through so many adversities and hardships, and in the end we do not get a happy ending -- not for the Joads or any of the other migrant families introduced. Their situation ends worse than when it began, even having lost what little belongings they still had in a flood at a migrant camp. But, even in a hopeless ending, we see that determination to survive and to help others survive.
The Joads and so many of these families like them are tough people, and the flight to California and fight to survive has made them seem more primal. It is this that the people of California fear -- people from elsewhere, hard and unforgiving as the land they fled. At the heart of it all, though, those migrant families help each other, even when they barely had enough to help themselves. We witness their spirit and their kindness and generosity, which never wavers no matter how hard times get. The Joads remind us that to be human is not just to survive but to help others.
One passage in the novel reads: "Keep those two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other... The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one." It's interesting to note that this has been the tactic used by those in power for almost a century.
And perhaps this is the crux of why this book was banned and censored. If the people come together and find that they are alike, it's much harder to keep that power at the top. If they help each other, it's more likely they will succeed or, at the very least, survive. And if they work together, they can fight oppression at last.