A Tale of Two Families – Dodie Smith

“But these backwaters of existence sometimes breed, in their sluggish depths, strange acuities of emotion” ― Edith Wharton

I’d never heard of this book, or the author, before I was asked to review it. In fact, I will confess to having thought it was a modern novel – as so many I am requested to review are. So I was surprised, but also not, having read the novel, to discover it was written in the 1970s. I was taken by the language and setting, and thought the portrayal of the time was done very well, but I also thought that is had a slightly modern feel to it. This has led me to conclude that Dodie Smith was somewhat ahead of her contemporaries in her writing style.

A Tale of Two Families – Dodie Smith

‘This is going to be a long five minutes’ walk,’ said June.

May thought this possible as there was still no sign of any house, but she continued to find things to praise: the overgrown hedges, the tall, still-dripping trees, the brilliant green of the grassy verges, the freshness of the air. And after several more bends in the lane they saw a white wooden gate standing open. Once through this they looked across a large, circular lawn surrounded by a gravel drive. And now at last they were face to face with the house.

‘Much too large,’ said June.

51QWhoqlqpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_May and June are devoted sisters, married to equally-devoted brothers, George and Robert, and even after more than two decades of marriage the four still thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. So when May and her highly-successful husband commit to a five-year lease on a huge, decaying manor house out in the country it seems only natural that they should persuade June and Robert to accept, rent free, a cottage within the grounds.

The two families leave London and, once joined by two not-quite-stereotypical grandparents, and blessed by regular visits from their respective children, begin to thoroughly enjoy their new experiences. Any initial qualms about leaving the city are lost in blissful hours spent wandering through the lilac groves, listening to the birdsong of the resident nightingale, absorbing the country air and indulging in May’s excellent cooking. The only thing that could possibly distress this perfect equilibrium is the compulsory visit of dreaded Aunt Mildred aka ‘Mildew’. Eccentric, annoying and thoroughly too young for her age, Mildred delights in secret dramas, regardless of their truth, or the harm that they may cause.

First and foremost I was absolutely delighted at Dodie Smith’s portrayal of country living. There are few things I love more than day-dreaming of a blissful, quiet life somewhere remote, with only the smell of flowers, birdsong, and the thought of bare-footed, early morning strolls through dew-soaked grass to trouble me. Even though Smith’s portrayal comes through the eyes of a somewhat dysfunctional family unit it still felt to me like a kind of absolute heaven, although perhaps a less than traditional view of heaven . I was so taken by the setting, from the second May and June arrived at the manor house, on a day in which the house and ground were engulfed by a stereotypical English downpour. The rain could not put me off, there was a magic in the dripping of the tree-lined driveway, and the impression of the foreboding, unloved Dower house, standing cold and resolute against the elements, and when the washed-out introduction gave way to pure, unadulterated spring bliss I was smitten. The whole book is brimming with lilac groves, quaint woodlands, blossoms, sundials and mounds and mounds of asparagus and strawberries – I loved every single second of it.

This is a book where characters are really central to the plot, I know characters are important in any story, but here it is the development of the characters that drive the story forward. Smith clearly had a talent for creating quirky, yet believable characters. Each and every character that passes through the estate has some kind of secret, inner passion or frustration. From the sensual Corinna, who is well and truly tired of waiting for saintly Hugh to make a move on her, to the quietly frustrated Robert, who, try as he might, cannot get his next novel on paper. Mildred inspires the release of these frustrations, allowing characters true desires to take form, while undoubtedly an expertly crafter character in her own right, her primary role is to serve as a catalyst for development in others.

In this way the story is very much in the moment, and in the experience, of two families shared existence. The day-to-day happenings in the Dower house are all at once endearing, humorous, envy-inducing, and on the whole utterly ridiculous. Think about it, could you really imagine your parents moving in with your aunt and uncle? Or yourself moving in with your sister/brother and their significant other? Regardless of how close knit a family you come from the situation is really rather odd. The book reads like an extended summer holiday – beautiful in its own way but very much temporary. I get the impression that, in the end, both families might actually quite like to return home.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed reading A Tale of Two Families, and would be interested to look up Smith’s other works in the future. I found the book to be a perfect, relaxing afternoon read – it left me feeling pleasantly fulfilled, and without the emotional torture than comes from a horrific book hangover. That said, if you like a bit more substance to your books, there is definitely potential to delve a little further into the hidden meanings behind characters’ actions. On the whole, would recommend, whether as a casual afternoon read or a more in depth book club selection.

I received a free copy of A Tale of Two Families from Hesperus Press in exchange for an honest review.

Ladder of Years – Anne Tyler

“We don’t see people as they are. We see people as we are.” ― Anaïs Nin

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I’ve never read any Anne Tyler before, but I was lured into buying this book by a dramatisation I heard on Radio 4. Over the period of a week or two I’d often catch few minutes of the show and find myself wondering what had happened in the episodes I’d missed. The curiosity got the better of me and I treated myself to a second hand copy from Amazon.

In Ladder of Years Anne Tyler tells the tale of Cordelia ‘Delia’ Grinstead – a forty-year-old housewife and medical secretary, who, while on a seaside holiday with her family, walks off down the beach and doesn’t look back.

This all started on a Saturday morning in May, one of those warm spring days that smell like clean linen. Delia had gone to the supermarket to shop for the week’s meals. She was standing in the produce section, languidly choosing a bunch of celery. Grocery stores always made her reflective. Why was it, she was wondering, that celery was not called ‘corduroy plants’? That would be much more colourful. And garlic bulbs should be ‘money bags,’ because their shape reminded her of the sacks of gold coins.

Ladder of Years is a thoughtful book, one of those stories that will make you wonder at the significance in every small thing. If Delia had not been shopping in that particular store on that morning, or if she had spent a little less time musing over the celery, her life might have taken a very different route.

It is in the produce section that Delia meets Adrian Bly-Brice, the man, the catalyst, who would set her on the first un-Cordelia Grinstead journey of her life.

The question of why Delia decided to leave her family is a difficult one to answer. Mainly because she didn’t, decide to leave I mean. She never intended to leave her family, it just sort of happened. It is as though she was overwhelmed for a moment, fed up with being so predictable, and once she had started walking it was difficult for her to find her way back home.

Who is it that Tyler hopes the reader will feel compassion for? Is it Delia? Or with the family that she has left behind? I felt a strange mix of feelings for both parties; coming from a broken family myself I empathised with the family left behind in Baltimore, who had lost their mother completely without warning. She upped and left without the slightest hint, leaving all her belongings behind, these things are never painless or easy. It must have been horrendous for her children, no matter what their age. I also felt sad for Delia, who seemed so lost and confused, spending the first days of her absence crying herself to sleep. She didn’t even fully understand why she had left.

I feel as though Delia was going through some sort of midlife crisis. She is portrayed as silently struggling to deal with the recent death of her father, who had been the one constant figure in her life. When her children began to grow up, she had reverted to caring for him, and months on from his death she could not bear to clear out his bedroom. It remained stuck, in a sort of time trap. Then she began to doubt her reasons for getting married and second guess her husband’s feelings towards her. Feeling as though she had never been swept off of her feet, by a man like Adrian Bly-Brice, but then, as her twin nieces would say ‘well that’s life’. For this reason, I felt hopeful that Delia would find her way home.

While few physical events actually happen in the book, it is in the least bit boring, and the chapters do not drag. The journey is predominantly an emotional one, and as such no single event seems to stand out as that important. That said, the Delia Grinstead who emerges throughout the book is a very different woman to the one who puzzled over celery on the very first page.

Tyler’s impeccable writing style allows for this emotional journey to take shape. The whole world in which Delia inhabits is so clearly defined that it might be about to leap off the page. All thoughts are portrayed seamlessly, and with almost perfect attention to detail, through Delia’s eyes. Each time she meets a new person, is faced with a new situation, or does anything at all, it is as though you can see the cogs of her mind working. The faces of the people she meets unfolding before her, in such a way that everyone becomes incredibly rounded and 3-dimensional. I feel as though I could sit and sketch an image of every person in the book, from Delia herself, to the fleeting image of Rosemary Bly-Brice.

I feel as though I have spent a couple of days reading an incredibly articulate diary. Not too much happens in the grand scheme of things, but I was definitely drawn into Delia Grinstead’s world. This one was an easy book to get into, and an even easier book to finish. Eloquently written, but without a hint of snobbishness.

Charlotte’s Web named best children’s book of all time!

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” ― C. S. Lewis

I was over the moon today to learn that Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White had been voted the best children’s book of all time.

The 1952 tale, about a lovable pig named Wilbur who is saved from the slaughter thanks to his unlikely friendship with a resourceful spider named Charlotte, was named number one in a list of 151 books chosen by critics in a poll by BBC Culture.

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The initial selection was whittled down to a list of the 21 top books in children’s literature, a diverse selection of books which provides a charming glimpse into children’s literature of the past two centuries.

1. Charlotte’s Web – E. B. White
2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C. S. Lewis
3. Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak
4. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
5. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
6. The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
7. Winnie-the-Pooh – A. A. Milne
8. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
9. A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin
10. A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L’Engle
11. The Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder
12. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
13. From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler – E. L. Koenigsburg
14. The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster
15. His Dark Materials trilogy – Philip Pullman
16. Matilda – Roald Dahl
17. Harriet the Spy – Louise Fitzhugh
18. Pippi Longstocking – Astrid Lindgren
19. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
20. Goodnight Moon – Margaret Wise Brown and Pat Hancock
21. The Hobbit – J. R. R. Tolkien

There are many books on the list I would have happily seen voted number one, but I think the most deserving book won. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Little Women are all firm favourites of mine, but they are books I came to love later on in life, whereas Charlotte’s Web was one of the first books I read on my own.

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I loved Charlotte’s Web as a child, and I find it just as enjoyable now as I did twenty years ago. So I am over the moon at it’s number one spot. Books which tell a story from the point of view of animals have always been popular among children, and E. B. White took this classic theme and created something truly wonderful.

I’d love to know what your thoughts are on this. Did your favourite children’s book make in onto the list? Do you think something else is more deserving of the number one spot? Let me know! 

Some of my favourite fictional ladies, created by ladies

“Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men.” ― Joseph Conrad

Over the weekend #womeninfiction emerged on Twitter, so in running with the theme I’m here to share with you a few of my favourite fictional ladies.

Renée Michel

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery.

Elegance of the HedgehogRenée Michel is possibly my favourite literary lady of all time. She is a concierge, and self-confessed member of the lower class. Despite how she outwardly appears, she is in fact fantastically intelligent, but she knows her place, and sticks to it, stating that to be “poor, ugly and, moreover, intelligent condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to accept at an early age”. Madame Michel prefers to lives a secret life, reading Russian literature in the privacy of her lodge while donning the air of a simpleton when speaking with the inhabitants of the apartment complex where she works.

In Renée, Barbery has created a fantastic female heroine for lovers of literature. I challenge anyone to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog and not feel themselves brimming over with admiration for the soft soul nestled within the prickly exterior of Madame Michel.

Petronella Brandt née Oortman

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

18498569Petronella is an 18-year-old Dutch girl whose family have fallen on hard times since the death of her father. She is married off to a wealthy merchant from Amsterdam, Johannes Brandt, but has a difficult time fitting into her new life. Petronella, who prefers to go by the name of Nella, attempts to be a good wife to her new husband, but is forever at the mercy of her stern sister-in-law Marin Brandt. Nella begins as a child, before all too quickly becoming a woman, when the crushing weight of her new family’s secrets is placed on her shoulders.

What is there to not love about Nella? In each stage of her growth she is simply delightful: innocent and charming, determined and strong, and finally, reliable and level-headed.

Jerusha Abbot

Daddy long legs – Jean Webster

9780141331119Jerusha Abbott, or Judy as she likes to be called, was brought up at the John Grier Home, an old-fashioned orphanage. At the age of 17, she find herself at a loose end, she has finished her education, and is no longer young enough to live in the orphanage without paying her way. Imagine her surprise when one of the John Grier Home’s trustees offers to pay for her to go to university. He will pay her tuition and also give her a generous monthly allowance; in exchange Judy must write him a monthly letter. Judy is told she will never know his true identity and must address the letters to Mr. John Smith, and he will never reply. Judy warms quickly to the trustee, gifting him the persona ‘Daddy Long Legs’, and writing warm, detailed letters each month. Judy dotes on her Daddy Long Legs, and, it appears, he on her.

Judy is an amazing character, gifted with the unique opportunity to turn her rags to riches. Read Daddy Long Legs and I’m sure you will find, too, that you fall in love with the little orphan girl and her extraordinary tale.

Geogianna Lennox

Dead and Buryd – Chele Cooke

dfw-cc-dab-cover-mid (2)Georgianna Lennox is a local medic on a foreign planet ruled by alien invaders, the Adveni. The native people, the Veniche, to whom Georgianna belongs, have become slaves in their own home. Georgianna is somewhat unique among the Veniche as her work allows her to tread within the realms of the Adveni forces, treating the sick and injured within the walls of the infamous Lyndbury prison. For Georgianna this is a way of treating her lost people, but it is not enough. When Georgianna’s friendship with a group of rebels risks putting her own freedom at stake, she is faced with a difficult decision – what will she choose to put first, her family or the freedom of her people?

Georgianna is a strong, determined character, but one I felt extremely comfortable getting to know. Cooke has created a character that is admirable, but also wonderfully human. I found her to be amazingly likeable and funny, despite her hard exterior.

Edwina

Now the Day is Over – Marion Husband

9781908381811-frontcover (2)Are you sick of me talking about Edwina yet? If you are, shame on you, you clearly haven’t taken the time to read the book.

Edwina is the spirit of a young woman trapped between the  early 20th Century, and modern day Britain. Since her death she has lurked the shadows of her former home, critically analysing those who take residence within the walls. In Now the Day is Over she takes the form of super-omniscient narrator, haunting the house which was once hers, commenting on the lives of the adulterous couple who reside within her domain, comparing their existence to the life that was once hers.

I love Edwina because she is so all encompassing. She is deliciously genuine, admirable, maddening, terrifying and somewhat detestable all rolled into one.

Intrigued by any of my lady loves? You know what to do.

Children’s book review tour! Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier – Barroux

“In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”  ― Wilfred Owen

Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier – Barroux

51QTsd1WFBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_There was never any question of including this book on my tour list. Before I had even received the book I knew that I loved it. Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier is exactly what the title implies; the diary of an unknown soldier.

One winter’s morning, Barroux was walking down the streets of Paris when he passed a house which was being emptied of rubbish; piles of old belongings, wrappers and refuse had been placed in the street. ‘We are emptying the basement. Help yourself if you like’ he was told by one of the people ferrying rubbish onto the street. It was at this point that Barroux picked up an ageing yellow diary from amongst the rubbish. A diary which belonged to an unknown soldier serving during world war one. Barroux took the diary and from it created Line of Fire, a graphic novel depicting the words written by an unknown French soldier…may his words never be forgotten.

This book was such a find! I’m over the moon to have discovered it, read it, and to have a copy of my own.

The illustration style fits so perfectly with the subject; you can almost imagine the soldier himself drawing them. They are simple, almost childish, yet graphic, as though they have been scratched with a piece of charcoal salvaged from the embers of long extinguished fire. They remind me, in some ways, of images I have seen drawn by soldiers on the front line. Although the sketches undoubtedly carry Barroux’s distinctive style, there is much in the way of reality present in the scenes. I am reminded of the images in A Soldiers Sketches Under Fire by Harold Harvey – real images sketched by a soldier on the front line.

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It feels strange to review the words of a man when I know nothing about him. Although Barroux is listed as the author of the book, the words belong to the Unknown Soldier. They are exactly as they were found, although in the case of my copy they have been translated into English from their native French. They are powerful words, and although it does not take long to read the book, the effect of the story is far reaching and potent.

The Unknown Soldier speaks of the things which are sure to have plagued any man on the front line of WWI. His fatigue, it is crippling, and he feels dead on his feet – ‘My feet are bleeding, My legs can no longer hold me up. This isn’t a man who’s walking but a sheep following the flock.’ He is never able to rest for more than a few hours before being aroused, often in the dead of night, to move on to the next place. He takes to sleeping on piles of straw, where they are available, next to his companion Fernand, sleeping close together for warmth, and, I expect, comfort.

Our Soldier worries about those he has left behind. He is so worried, plagued by worry each time he receives no word from home. It is moving to see the worry from the other side. It is well known that those that are left behind will worry about their father, brother, son, or husband who has gone away to fight, but the soldiers words show that the worry tortures him equally. ‘The women weep. It’s up to us to show that we’re stronger than they are and convince them that we will return.’ When he does hear news his release is evident, as though he has let out a deep breath of relief; ‘at last I receive some postcards from my dear wife’.

The horror of war is also painted on the pages of the diary, not so much in Barroux’s drawings, but in the soldier’s words. The words are not complicated or flowing, but to the point, and powerful – you can smell the gunpowder, hear the crackle of artillery fire, and see the horrors that the Unknown Soldier scrawls within the pages of his diary. ‘This is where a powerful shell landed on a platoon of the 6th company, which was partially destroyed’ he writes, having seen the remains of a soldiers leg hanging from a tree branch.

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The Unknown Soldier seems to have made a narrow escape from the horrors of war, although no one knows now anything about the man who kept this diary.  He writes of being injured while forced to advance under the eruption of overhead shrapnel, and of the bravery of a fellow soldier, without whom he may not have survived. ‘While he’s bandaging my arm, the shells continue to rain down on us. I shall never forget the devotion of this soldier who didn’t think twice about risking his life, staying close in order to tend to me.’

Once out of the line of fire, he is faced with a lengthy journey to a hospital, all the while in indescribable pain, and with a raging fever which forbids him rest and sustenance. It is once he arrives at hospital, and his fever begins to subside that he is faced with another, unimagined issue – boredom. For a week we hear nothing of the Unknown Soldier, and then, he writes of his boredom, the slowness of the days, his heavy heart, and his feeling that life is carrying on all the same outside of the hospital walls.

‘Sometimes I’m sorry I didn’t stay in the line of fire’ – and with these words the Unknown Soldier’s story ends.

Line of Fire has left me feeling such a strange mix of emotions, with so many questions running through my mind. The power of the Unknown Soldier’s last words are incredible, and only made more so by the fact that he, undoubtedly, never expected anyone to read his diary. Who was this man? And why did he stop writing? Questions I will find myself often asking, and will never know the answer to.

I would recommend this book to almost anyone. Even if you don’t feel drawn to Barroux’s illustrations the power of the Unknown Soldier’s words will not fail to captivate. History students, WWI fanatics, children and adults alike, this is a lesson in history, and an important one at that. Read it and pass on the recommendation.

“The future depends on what you do today.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

Actions speak louder than words

Deeds Not Words ― Katharine D’Souza

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Katharine D’Souza has lived much of her life in and around Birmingham. She specialises in writing contemporary fiction, in the form of novels, and the occasional short story, with a realistic edge. Her characters, who, like herself, all herald from Birmingham, encounter real life situations and problems. ‘It’s perhaps unsurprising that my stories are set in Birmingham,’ she says, ‘but I hope the themes are universal’. To date D’souza has released two novels, the second of which, Deeds not Words, was published in December 2013.


Deeds not Words follows the story of museum curator Caroline, who has returned to her hometown following the breakdown of her marriage. Now, middle aged and alone, Caroline is stagnating, and feels herself become more and more unfased by her work and social life. As the fledgling member of a competitive office Caroline struggles to make her voice heard, and outside of work she bears the brunt of being the only one of her parents’ children living close to home. So when Caroline accidentally stumbles upon information alluding to a side of her family she never knew existed she cannot resist the urge to indulge her passion for the past and delve a little further into her family history. In doing this she is all at once given the once given the opportunity, and the motivation, she needs to create something from her life. But is she willing to take the risk?

I was pleasantly surprised by this novel. When I started reading it, despite the fact it is about a museum curator, I had no idea it would have the historical aspect that it did. Those of you who read my blog often will know of my soft spot for historical fiction – while I don’t think this book quite falls within these realms, there is a definite a historical aspect to it, which I love. The historian within Caroline is reawakened in researching her family history when she discovers her ‘great aunt Susannah’, an inspirational lady who was heavily involved in the women’s suffrage movement in Birmingham. Caroline’s research takes the reader on a historical journey back to a time when the women’s suffrage movement was in full swing – while D’Souza has been clear that the book is a work of fiction the message conveyed remains the same.

It is Caroline’s grandmother, Beth,  who first sets in motion Caroline’s desire to uncover her family history when she speaks to Caroline about wanting to do what is right, and put an end to a feud which has been hanging over the family for years. Her grandmother’s words are vague and confusing, however, and Caroline has to take matters into her own hands to realise the root of the feud, and ultimately her grandmother’s true wishes. Caroline makes up her mind to take action and bring the family back together, and in so doing finds herself up against some serious barriers in the form of her incredibly stubborn mother. Reading about the relationship Caroline has with her mother is actually quite painful, and I’m sure an empathetic reader would feel more than a little sympathy for Caroline. In deciding to strive to reform her family after so many years, Caroline effectively risks marring her relationship with her mother – a difficult decision, but ultimately a clear one.

While reading this book I felt I grew to know Caroline intimately, and was able to witness first hand as she in turn grew to know Susannah. It is easy to imagine Caroline sitting down to filter through her great aunt’s old possessions and to picture her captivation upon visiting her old art college and walking the same paths as she had so many years before. Caroline’s journey occurs as a result of Susannah’s actions so many years before, the knowledge of Susannah’s passion and commitment to her cause is what gives Caroline the motivation she needs to succeed:

‘In Susannah’s footsteps, the simple act of asking for something, stating a demand, had brought her a long way.’

I thoroughly enjoyed travelling with Caroline as her research uncovered the parts of Susannah and the suffragettes which were still hidden in Birmingham, such as the oil painting left hanging in her family’s old factory:

‘It was all there the suffragette’s colours of pure white, hopeful green and dignified purple all present in the scenery around the edge of the picture. The splashes of colour surrounded the factory building and that female figure opening the gate as though she owned the factory made a fine punchline.’

While D’souza has been clear that Deeds not Words is purely a work of fiction, the suffragettes were of course only too real, and it is interesting to consider that there could still be such messages hidden within direct sight so many years after the suffragettes demand of ‘votes for women’ has been realised.

I was pleasantly surprised that this novel didn’t turn out to be yet another love story. In fact, this was made all the more rewarding in D’Souza decision to peter dangerously close to becoming just this, before stealing the show back right at the very end. Caroline is only human, and while it is to be expected that she would be not entirely adverse to the advances of an attractive man, I feel this would have given the book entirely the wrong message. The choice D’Souza made with regards to Caroline’s love life was, I feel, entirely the right one.

Overall, I found Deeds Not Words to be a very satisfying read. D’Souza has a unique take on historical fiction which is juxtaposed with the contemporary banality of middle-aged city life. The story itself is enthralling because it is entirely believable, especially given the current obsession with the trend for people to tracing their family histories. The book also has something to say about life choices and the idea of making your mark upon the world, a message which may leave the reader contemplating their decisions long after the final chapter has concluded.

Many thanks to Katharine D’Souza for supplying me with a free review copy of her book.

“Once poverty is gone, we’ll need to build museums to display its horrors to future generations. They’ll wonder why poverty continued so long in human society – how a few people could live in luxury while billions dwelt in misery, deprivation and despair.” ― Muhammad Yunus

The monster

The Grapes of Wrath ― John Steinbeck

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First published in 1939, and set during the Great Depression in the United States, The Grapes of Wrath is John Steinbeck’s critical analysis of the capitalistic forces responsible for forcing thousands of families off of their land, and in search of better work, and a brighter future, both of which for the majority simply did not exist.

When preparing to write the novel, Steinbeck wrote: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this”.

This is definitely a book I would recommend for everyone to read, but I would recommend you do so before going any further with this review. As I feel the need to give a rather in depth synopsis in order to give more meat to some of my opinions.

While the novel was written almost 80 years ago the underlying themes of the story, ring true once again today [although for the majority of people without the severity of the 1930s]. Thanks to the outsourcing of labour by large corporations in a bid to drive down production costs, Steinbeck’s themes of corporate greed and joblessness are back with a vengeance.

Steinbeck’s novel focuses initially, and primarily on Tom Joad, who, when released from an Oklahoma prison, sets out to reunite himself with his family. Along the way Tom runs into an old preacher from his childhood Jim Casy, and takes him along to find the family, only to discover the old house uninhabited, an empty shell of the life it once contained. The pair discover that changing economic conditions have forced the Joad family out of their farm, leaving them unable to pick the cotton which had sustained them for so many years. New living conditions in an old lean to shack are proving too cramped, and so the family, relived at Tom’s reappearance, head west to California chasing the promises of orange “han’bills”, offering good money for pea pickers to work in the harvest.

Within the novel, aside from telling the story of the Joad family, Steinbeck also dedicates smaller chapters to looking at the issue on a somewhat larger, less personal scale. These chapters work brilliantly within the context of the story, giving the reader a wider scope with which to view the setting of the novel. The chapter which stands out as the most memorable for me focuses on ‘the monster’ which is the root cause of so much pain and destruction. Steinbeck’s monster can be a difficult creature to get your head around. The monster does not refer to the new machines that plough the land, or the land owners, or those responsible for loaning money and running the banks. It is the banks themselves:

“The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”

Something much more sinister than any man, a thought process which has been brought about by men, and now runs free, unburdened, and terrible:

“The monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.”

Steinbeck follows the Joad family along Route 66 as they head west, towards the promise of a new life and a fresh start. The eldest daughter Rose of Sharon, and her new husband Connie, are expecting their first child, and have high hopes of Connie securing an education, a job and a house before the baby is born. Rose of Sharon busies herself dreaming of what life will be like, she is particularly taken with the idea of owning an ice box.

Shortly after the family begin their journey things take a turn for the worse, travelling proves extremely wearing on the family, especially on the elder relatives, and the journey progresses the family slowly begins to fall apart, beginning with the death of Grandpa just days after they leave Oklahoma. The eldest son, Noah, stays behind as they enter California, refusing to go back to exhausting life on the road, insisting that he will stay with the river, and soon after Noah leaves, Grandma joins her husband.

As time progresses the family desperately attempt to hold onto the hope that their new life in California will hold the treasures they so eagerly anticipated. They experience ‘Hooterville’ for the first time, a place where job seeking “Okies” huddle together in dirty tents, with starving families until driven on by the authorities, and Pa holds a conversation with a dirty, giggling man, who sparks the first of the family’s fears, there is no work in California. At the prospect of being unable to supply for Rose of Sharon and the baby Connie flees. Later, when the authorities appear in Hooterville to try and move the settlers on Casy intervenes and gets himself arrested.

Desperately seeking shelter for the night, they find temporary relief in the “Weedpatch” government camp. The camp offers the family the much needed rest they required, a sense of community operates within the fences, with families working together to keep the camp clean, running water, and weekly dances. All this takes place much to the dismay of the local authorities, who cannot bear the idea of the poor sticking together and getting comfortable. However the joy of having a community, washing facilities and a safe place to sleep is short lived, and the family eventually moves on, realising that despite the comfort of the government camp, there is still no work.

Having travelled west of the government camp the Joad family pass a picket line of protesting workers, and end up picking peaches in the “Hooper Ranch” receiving a higher wage than usual having just broken a strike. Living in a small wooden shack, and forced to buy overpriced food from the ranch store, the situation is far from ideal. One night Tom discovers that the man leading the strike is in fact Jim Casy. Shortly afterwards Tom, Casy and some of the other striking workers get into a fight with the ranch authorities, and one of the men kills Casy with a tool handle. Tom manages to wrestle the weapon away Casy’s Killer, he then, enraged by what he has seen, commits the second murder of his life.

Steinbeck’s description of the time spent at the Hooper Ranch brings to light in the readers mind more than ever the severity of the indignities that these people suffered at the hands of other human beings. It seems almost incomprehensible that anyone could have been treated with such little compassion. The idea of paying a man a pittance, because he does not have the strength, or the ability to refuse a job, regardless of the price, or work involved, is absolutely incredible.

My feelings are all but summed up by the words of Guardian writer Melvyn Bragg:

“I was all but drowned in the pity and anger John Steinbeck evoked for these people, fleeing Oklahoma to seek work but finding nothing save cruelty, violence, the enmity of immoral banks and businesses”

This incredibly moving novel, stirred so many emotions within me, even before what I’m sure many consider to be the bleakest period in the Joad family’s journey.

After Tom’s clash with the ranch authorities, the family are forced to go on the run. They travel north and find work picking cotton in a roadside field, residing in a boxcar while Tom takes refuge in the nearby woods. Other families are hungry for work, and the cotton does not last long. Then the rains set in, and with them, hunger, cold, and flooding. Rose of Sharon goes into labour after a bout of sickness and loses the baby. Meanwhile the floods threaten to completely engulf the car which the family reside in, leaving the Joad’s with no choice but to leave. At this point Tom is sent away to care for himself, and one of the elder children chooses to stay behind with the daughter of another family, leaving the Joad family less than half the size they were when they first began their journey.

Steinbeck ends the novel with a devastating scene. The family has taken refuge in a barn inhabited an old gentleman and his son. The man is gravely ill, having forfeited him own food to feed his son, and he can no longer hold down solid food. Ma realises that Rose of Sharon is now producing milk, at which time a silent nod of understanding passes between the two women, and the family leave the barn. The reader is left with the haunting image of Rose of Sharon, nursing the dying man. An incredibly powerful image, which stays with the reader long after the novel is finished.

Inhumanity is possibly the most important and prominent theme running through The Grapes of Wrath. The characters within the novel experienced horrendous suffering at the hands of landowners who saw migrants with rights as a threat to their livelihoods, and therefore set out to strip them of even the basic human rights we enjoy today, exploiting fellow Americans to the point of utter ruin. Human beings were the both the cause, and the recipients, of suffering in the land of the free. The land owners in California lived a life of luxury, while the migrants were treated like animals.

With the inhumanity lies a second, more positive theme. The characters within the novel maintain a certain hope and unity which holds the dwindling family and the migrants in general together as one. The importance of remaining together as a family is emphasised throughout the novel. It is being together that in part helps the Joad family to never lose sight of hope. When the groups of migrants get together they create a sense of hope of what will come next, such as can be seen within the government camp. This is a striking, and more than likely accurate, depiction of the great depression migrants, who, when all else failed, clung to hope.

Steinbeck’s writing is beautifully poetic, with the most intricate details going into every description, be it a blonde headed girl outside a tent in the government camp, or the feeling of sand between hot toes in the cool Californian Rivers. At the same time, The Grapes of Wrath would not be wasted on a less avid reader; Steinbeck’s style is wonderfully accessible without being easy to read. Rewarding, without being tedious.

Steinbeck will leave the reader thinking about the story long after the book is finished. A work of fiction about a real thing, a real time, with real people. While the Joad family may be fictional, their experiences reflect the life of many Americans at that time.