Friday, February 11, 2011

All our Tom Joad Ghosts

A few weeks ago, I was talking to one of my oldest college friends on the phone. He said that he had just finished reading Little Women, and we had an intriguing conversation about that. Little Women is the first book that made me cry. I remember reading the book on our big family trip west, and I got to the death of Beth as we drove through the Rockies. I remember sitting in the back seat with tears streaming down my face.

You may wonder why my college friend read Little Women. He's trying to read more classics (I think his goal is one per month this year), and he chose that one for a variety of reasons. I admire him. I tried to reread the book as a grown up, and couldn't make it very far--but not because it's too much a child's book, but because it's too much a 19th century novel, with all the dense prose that indictment implies.

We talked about what he would read next. He was thinking about Steinbeck. We talked about The Grapes of Wrath, and we decided to read it together.

That's how I came to be reading The Grapes of Wrath on the plane. I found it much more compelling than I expected. It's breaking my heart in so many ways.

I've read the book before. In the eleventh grade, we were supposed to have the first several chapters of the book read, and my teacher figured out that none of us had read it. She said, "Well, you're having a quiz tomorrow. On the whole book. We'll spend the rest of the period reading. Go ahead. Take out your books. Get started."

I read the whole thing in one night, because I'm a good girl that way. But I didn't remember much about it.

I had forgotten how beautiful the prose can be. I think of Steinbeck as a master of creating great characters, and he is. But alternating with each chapter that tells the story of the Joads comes an alternating chapter that tells about the historical situation with great lyrical intensity. The prose breaks my heart with joy for the fact that it lies there, nestled in between the narrative chapters. The history behind it breaks my heart.

I think back to my own farming people, not that many generations ago. How did they hang on to their land? My relatives of my grandparents' generation remember the Depression, and they remember that they wore holes in their shoes and patched their clothes again and again, but they were always well-fed, with enough to share, because they lived on the farm. They lived on Southern farms--maybe that was the trick. If they had lived on Kansas farms, my family's trajectory would have been very different.

Reading the book also breaks my heart because it still seems so relevant. All those people, losing their livelihoods and their possessions and their very lives, because of corporate policies--true for the Joads and true for us. I expected the book to seem like a historical artifact, but it vibrates with pertinence.

The Joads have haunted our national consciousness and found their way into all sorts of pop culture. One of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs is "The Ghost of Tom Joad" I also love the cover version done by Rage Against the Machine on their Renegades album. Long ago, I was a member of a Rage Against the Machine group, and I got intriguing things in the mail. Long ago, I got a vinyl 45 of the song, long before it appeared on any album. I was so happy to see the song on a CD that I could buy, back in the days when I assumed that CDs would be the way we'd experience music forever.

I've been working on a poem for years now: "Tom Joad's Baseball Field." Maybe I'll change the name to "Tom Joad's Sports Stadium." I started working on it years ago, when I let all the details of the proposed new Marlins stadium sink into my brain. It was bad enough that tax payers would be expected to fund a stadium for super rich team owners and players--tax payers in one of the poorest urban areas in the country. At the time, the place where they were thinking of putting the arena would have displaced many homeless people. Those of us with homes tend to think of the homeless as already displaced, but the truth is more complex.

We've had decades of research now that proves that sports stadiums always--ALWAYS--cost more than they contribute to the surrounding community. And yet, we continue to be in thrall to them.

I haven't gotten the poem to where I want it yet. That's why I was happy to reread The Grapes of Wrath with my friend. Maybe it will give me an angle to find my way to the end of the poem.


Kathleen said...

Yes, what a great time to be re-reading Grapes of Wrath. I'm sure it will help you with the poem.

And, oh, Beth. The tears streaming down my face. I remember I went and talked to my Mom with the tears still there, hardly able to believe it. She looked at me and asked, "Did Beth die?" and I nodded.

Kells said...

My Daughter and I just read little women this year. I loved it more as I did as a child. I think the calmness is the type of world/life I'd like to live in now. As I said I loved it, though didn't love it as much then.

However we also read Tom Sawyer, my fav book as a kid. I didn't like it as much. All the jewels and gold and magic I remembered as a child wasn't there. My child-self saw the book as so much more wonderful-- the raft, the caves, the treasure, the graveyard-- but as an adult, it was a great book, but that nostaglic feeling I had for a place I'd never been was missing and it was just a story. As a child, I dreamed about this book and lived it for years.