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Debunking the Myths Around "The Grapes of Wrath",
This review is from: Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's the Grapes of Wrath (Hardcover)
The Depression hit our country swiftly and mercilessly, making for thousands of dramatic stories--many of which would remain unbelievable were it not for the personal testimonies of those who lived through those brutal years. Some of the most heart-wrenching of those tales come from the Dust Bowl, both from those who chose to stay with their farms and those who migrated to California in search of a better life. Steinbeck's brilliant prose in "The Grapes of Wrath" profoundly tapped into the soul of these plucky, proud migrants. This immensely controversial and powerful book shook the political and social beliefs of all who read it at the time, and even shaped the views of those who never dared to crack its cover. With a definite "Communist slant" and shockingly realistic language, "The Grapes of Wrath", written in 1939, exposed the alleged bigotry the "Okies" faced in their quest for work in California, and the fear that simmered just beneath the surface of every agricultural elitist out West: host to the hundreds of thousands of Dust Bowl migrants. As much as things change, political rhetoric remains as pathetically similiar today for the Liberals and the Conservatives as it did in the early-1940's.
Rick Wartzman examines a particularly tumultuous week in Kern County, California's history--August 21 - 28, 1939. Kern County, and its county seat, Bakersfield, were the real-life backdrop in Steinbeck's fiction work "The Grapes of Wrath". And during this historical week, the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted, and re-voted, on the public banning of "The Grapes of Wrath". Wartzman covers this explosive civil rights event with the skill of a master story-teller and historian in "Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath".
He masterfully weaves--going systematically back and forth in time--all the threads surrounding this socially complex period into a well-balanced, multi-perspective tapestry. Wartzman, in perfect hindsight, tends to sympathize and side with the migrants of the time, but also delivers a comprehensive, in-depth understanding of those who felt threatened by Steinbeck's work, especially the leaders of Kern County whom Steinbeck portrayed as abusive, merciless slave-owners. Surprisingly, however, not only businessmen, bankers, and land-owners were offended by "The Grapes of Wrath". Wartzman also fairly assesses the migrants' own justified resentments against their portrayal in the famous book, highlighting how Steinbeck painted a picture of an uneducated, immoral class in the story of the Joad family and their companions.
"Obscene in the Extreme" is sprinkled with engaging side stories and pictures, particularly of those who were intimately involved in the controversy in Kern County: reporters, librarians, Steinbeck, politicians, famous celebrities and most delightfully, the migrant workers themselves. It is an enlightening historical account, righting some misconceptions and exposing some bitter truths, around one of America's most poignant pieces of classic literature, "The Grapes of Wrath".