Thursday, July 18, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell.
Photo: Joad for the Road- join the crowd and read Steinbeck this summer.
If you''ve never read The Grapes of Wrath, or if your memory of the story of Tom Joad and his family is lost in the faraway mists of high school English, this is the summer to read John Steinbeck''s classic work. In recent years, several American cities and even some states have developed programs to encourage everyone to read the same book at the same time. This spring the California Council of Humanities, in conjunction with 180 public libraries and several other organizations, announced California''s first statewide reading program, "California Stories: Reading The Grapes of Wrath," in honor of the 100th anniversary of John Steinbeck''s birth. Several statewide events will be held in October, the month Steinbeck finished writing the book in 1938, and the month he was finally awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962.
"It is our hope that people will begin a new conversation about our shared experiences," the Council states on its website (www.calhum.org) "and that the telling and sharing of stories will serve as a tool for increasing civic dialogue and strengthening communities by inspiring increased understanding and trust."
Plus, as you will discover if you haven''t read it yet, The Grapes of Wrath is a really cool book. But it is a long one, so don''t wait until the end of summer to start it.
Once you have finished reading The Grapes of Wrath, there are many other ways to continue celebrating Steinbeck''s great novel. Read T. Coraghessan Boyle''s 1995 novel Tortilla Curtain, a story about immigration that, while standing on the literary shoulders of the Joad family, manages to introduce more ambiguity and irony, more shades of grey, than Steinbeck did. Or read anything by Barbara Kingsolver, whose writing, like Steinbeck''s, is animated by a commitment to social justice and a belief in the fundamental integrity of humankind.
If you enjoy movies, go ahead and rent the 1940 John Ford classic, with Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. But notice how older movies can feel dated, almost foreign, in a way that good books never do. A more recent film to watch is El Norte (1984), which tells the heartbreaking story of a Guatelamalan brother and sister who dream of coming to California, the magic and mythic North of the film''s title.
Another way to encounter Steinbeck''s spirit visually is to visit the splendid exhibit of paintings by Corral de Tierra artist David Ligare currently showing at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. Quotations from Steinbeck''s fiction, selected by guest curator Gary Smith of Hartnell College, cast Ligare''s handsome paintings in a new light, not so much as illustrations of Steinbeck''s stories as parallel creations inspired by the same hills and valleys, the same quality of light, that Steinbeck loved so much.
If you are taking a long road trip this summer, try to find a copy of the audiocassette version of The Grapes of Wrath, masterfully narrated by Dylan Baker. In Baker''s rough-edged voice one can hear the great range of Steinbeck''s characters, along with the dusty, desperate atmosphere of the long road they must travel: the camaraderie, the hunger, the fear.
For music, in addition to Bruce Springsteen''s Ghost of Tom Joad, consider the two albums recorded by Billy Bragg and Wilco that set lyrics by Woody Guthrie to original music. The set is titled Mermaid Avenue, after the street in Coney Island, Brooklyn where Guthrie lived after World War II. These engaging folk-rock songs recall the era of the Dustbowl while sounding utterly fresh and up-to-date.
For Internet surfers, the best place to start is an amazing site called The Grapes of Web (lii.org.TGOW). Here you will find access to a broad selection of subjects relating to Steinbeck''s novel.
In the end, perhaps the best way to pay tribute to Steinbeck''s enduring achievement is to reflect on how the story he tells is really the story of all Californians. Since California became a state in 1849, more than 50 percent of its population, in any given year, was born someplace else.
So here''s one more suggestion for celebrating The Grapes of Wrath. Organize a dinner with as many friends, neighbors, coworkers and family members as can fit around your table. Enjoy the incredible agricultural bounty of our state, its fresh fruit and vegetables, its wonderful wine. Remember that many hands and hearts were involved in its cultivation. And as the meal winds down, go around the table and share stories about how you, or your parents, grandparents or ancestors, came to California. Talk about what was found, and what was lost. Share with each other your ideas for what kind of California you want to leave for the future. And raise a glass to John Steinbeck, whose heart and whose hopes for this state of dreams were as wide and as great as California itself.
The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas has been celebrating John Steinbeck''s 100th birthday all year, heading up to the 22nd annual Steinbeck Festival scheduled for Aug. 1-4. Call 775-4720.