Thursday, January 17, 2013

Last month, I read two very different books about migration in the U.S. I didn't intend to do so; it happened kind of accidentally, but they complement each other well. Both are fictionalized accounts of real historical events and both feature major Westward migrations, so I thought it might be interesting to contrast them. One is the relatively unknown A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher; the other is the cultural juggernaut The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

I read A Sudden Country first. I saw this book reviewed in Entertainment Weekly years ago, and added it to my Amazon wish list. Lucky for me, my Amazon wish list is now so old that most of the books on it are now available in the local library. So lately I've been walking the library with my Amazon wish list pulled up on my phone searching for titles, and that's how I happend to come across this one.

Fisher's book is set during the 1847 Westward migration- just before the Gold Rush- when thousands of Americans took the Oregon trail west in covered wagons. It is the story of Lucy Mitchell, whose husband Israel (interesting that he shares a name with the wandering people of the Bible's Exodus) is obsessed with the idea of leaving his comfortable life and seeing the wild American frontier, oblivious to the dangers and to the bitterness of heart the trip is causing to his wife. Lucy's fears for her safety and that of her children are the driving force of her attraction to a fur trader, trapper and all-around survivalist named MacLaren, with whom she eventually has an affair. MacLaren has his own story; he is married to a Nez Perce woman who left him for another man, and their three children (who are half Native American) have since all died of smallpox brought west by the first migration of white people on the Oregon trail.

This story, set on the wild, vast American frontier, is surprisingly small and intimate. It takes place almost entirely in the heads of its two leads, MacLaren and Lucy Mitchell, and is not so much a love story as a practical grown-up drama. The characters are very real; their thoughts come alive and ring with truth, but the issues presented here, such as how westward migration affected the Native populations (many of which were decimated by smallpox and other European diseases), are not touched on except as they relate intimately to the lives of the two leads. Thus the entire Westward migration and all its tragedy and triumph is a little bit reduced. Given the book's setting, I expected a grand sweeping tale as big as the untouched American plains, and got a small human drama that in many ways could have been set anywhere at any time.

The story also strangely lacks a moral center. Lucy and MacLaren have their affair and neither one seems to feel particularly bad about it- which is surprising in some ways as MacLaren himself is a cuckold whose wife has a series of men throughout the book. The theme that Fisher is trying to get across is one of "stories;" she repeatedly calls the Native Americans people who like stories, and she also refers to the "stories" (meaning the Bible) that brought the white man forward over sea and land to conquer. At the end of the book, MacLaren, held hostage by hostile Indians, tells them his story.

I think the author is trying to convey that our stories are who we are. That the stories of the Nez Pearce drive them in one direction while the stories of the Europeans (Biblical for the most part) drive them another. But to me the overall effect of the book, is that the feelings and "stories" of one person override and obscure the larger "story." Therefore Lucy's story, her bitterness against her husband and her fear of the future, justify her affair and override the big picture story of her family, her marriage, and the entire Westward migration. The book almost seems to say that our responsibility is to make ourselves happy as well as we can, when we can, and that our stories are just kind of there to get us through the night.

Interesting that this is almost the polar opposite of the second book I read, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I chose this book because Kyle and I watched Ken Burns' amazing documentary on the Dust Bowl, and I was intrigued to find out that the Westward migration of 1930's actually dwarfed the Oregon Trail era migration by hundreds of thousands of people- it was truly an exodus of amazing proportions! I knew that Steinbeck's novel is the classic account of this migration so I felt compelled to read it. Plus I felt a little bit like a sham as an English teacher never having read it! (How did I miss this book and yet had to read Huckleberry Finn in three different courses?)

Whereas I felt A Sudden Country was a large story told in a small way, The Grapes of Wrath is a small story told in a big way! It is the story of the Joad family, who, like so many families of the era are reduced to share cropping on their own land because the drought and the dust storms have forced them to borrow heavily from the banks. At last, the banks decide it is more profitable to plant where the sharecroppers' houses are and kick them off the land. The Joads pack everything into a truck and migrate to California where the lure of good jobs, fertile land and fruit trees has drawn hundreds of thousands of Dust Bowl refugees. Unfortunately, California doesn't deliver all it has promised- after all, there is still a Great Depression on and fear of all the migrants taking good jobs, or going on state aid leads to unfair and unholy labor practices, ridiculously low wages, and a terrible situation for the Joads.

This story is excellently told and drew me in masterfully. I felt the unfairness with the Joads, I was angry when they were angry, and sad when they were, and awed at the sheer meanness, and sometimes the kindness, of humanity.

But beyond the story of this one family, Steinbeck manages to create a story of and for every family that has ever lost their home, for every man who has been desperate for work, for every woman who has struggled to feed her family, and for anyone who ever raged against a hostile and unfair world. Steinbeck's interstitials- chapters that don't mention the Joads specifically but that give a kind of snapshot of the era- are part of the reason for the "big" feeling of this book. There is a chapter about the banks, their hungry and regardless drive for profit, a chapter about the used car salesmen who ripped off the migrating people with ridiculously high prices, a chapter about a waitress who watches the migration of these poor but proud folks. Their testimonies elevate the Joad's intimate and sympathetic tale into a grand opus- a symphony of whirling dust, chugging tractors, grinding gears, humming Capitalism, gnawing hunger, fierce desire. The final scene, where one of the Joads literally offers the milk of human kindness to a starving man, is the perfect final note.

The central idea of The Grapes of Wrath is that we are all beholden to each other, that we are responsible to one another. That our personal wishes and desires, our own "stories" (as Karen Fisher would say) are obscured or lost in the great big story of humanity as it struggles on- that our selves and our own families don't compare to the grandness of what is at stake in the battle for life to go on.

This is shown to us through the transformation of Tom Joad, the eldest son of the Joad clan. Throughout the book, Tom is just trying to get by. He continually does what he has to do to move himself and the family forward without thinking much beyond his next act, his next meal; he is continually telling the other characters that he is just "trying to put one foot in front of the other" and that is all he can think about. Meanwhile, his friend Casey, a former preacher, is constantly trying to get him to see the big picture; to see the forest and not just the trees, to see how his struggle connects with the struggles of those around him.

We know Tom finally "gets" it when he delivers his famous final speech, on the eve of leaving his family to fight the greater battle for the migrant workers and their rights. As his mother begs him to stay, worried that she will never see him again, Tom reassures her; "Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Whenever they's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there...I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad, and I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise, an' live in the houses they build, why, I'll be there." And just like that, Tom's struggle, which throughout the book was only to "put one foot in front of other" becomes about something bigger and more socially responsible.

While A Sudden Country is very insightful about relationships and sometimes delightfully introspective in a Virginia Woolf kind of way, The Grapes of Wrath is at once intimate and epic, a truly astounding book and one with themes that are still relevant today. As we've watched the economy take a nosedive, and seen so many families displaced from their homes, as good paying jobs become more scarce and as anger against the banks grows, The Grapes of Wrath is just as visceral and moving a book as I imagine it was when first released.

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