My oldest son is due to go back to school on Thursday. He's in his second year of advanced English classes and the last thing his new teacher did before school let out last spring was hand them all a copy of the Grapes of Wrath to read over the summer.
Naturally my son hasn't bothered to read it yet. I mentioned it to him last night, his eyes rounded and he made "Oh yeah. I forgot" sounds. He added an embarassed comment concerning first impressions and said he would read it over the next couple of days. It shouldn't be too hard, he said. It's not that long.
This is not Harry Potter, I told him. Not even close. I read it in high school. You'll want to spend some time with this one to be sure you "get it".
What year did you have to read it?
Oh, I didn't have to read it. I read it --brace yourself--for fun.
He stared at me strangely.
I went off to bed, telling my husband that I was clearly a literary geek, aka a leek, in the same sense that other people are science geeks (seeks?). He said that was okay because leeks got him hot. He's a very smart man.
My Arkansas high school wasn't training potential English majors (they were just happy we could spell). Reading was not emphasized and our exposure to good literature was limited. However, for some reason, I suspected I should read things like The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, The Sun also Rises, Lord of the Flies, The Count of Monte Carlo, As I lay Dying, etc. For once, I was right.
Confession? I hated the Grapes of Wrath. I don't know what Steinbeck was thinking. I like nearly everything else he wrote (though not so much The Red Pony), but I think he really missed the boat with this one. Summary: Everybody's crops died because of a drought, everybody decided to go to California. Lots of people died or gave up along the way. One grieving woman (which Steinbeck painted up as shallow and self-serving), whose child was born dead after months of hoping and dreaming, offered her breast milk to a sick man (a symbol of her change from self-serving to selflessness). The end.
I understand the sub-text. I understand what Steinbeck was driving toward, but the vehicle he used was inappropriate and demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of the population of people he was writing about. I reached this conclusion on my own at sixteen and have confirmed it with an attempted re-read in recent years.