Night after night
During the first week of March, just before we officially had to hunker down, shelter in place, I launched into two projects both juicy and plenty meaty enough to sink my teeth into for a while. One was to knit an afghan as a wedding gift for a couple getting married in the third week of June. The other was to play the audio book version of The Grapes of Wrath.
The two went together, and from the start were meant to occupy my evenings when I could relax, unwind from the routines of daily life, which at the time included a demanding online writing course. I settled in for the long haul, knowing we were now locked down until May 15th, if not longer. Every night I knit at least six rows of the afghan designed to grow to four by five feet while listening to several chapters of Steinbeck’s masterpiece that would last twenty-one hours.
The pattern for the afghan was simple enough, knit ninety-six stitches across, purl ninety-six back the other way, a good rhythm that allowed me to listen closely to the rhythm of Steinbeck’s magnificent prose. I had never read/listened to The Grapes of Wrath before, though I had seen the black-and-white movie starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad four or five times in high school (Not sure how much I remember beyond Fonda’s face on camera and the Joad’s funky old car loaded down with their worldly possessions trying to make it across the desert). In those days, English teachers had us read Of Mice and Men and The Pearl and The Red Pony. All great Steinbeck works, all much shorter.
I took on The Grapes of Wrath in early March not so much to plug a hole in my literary background, but to research a Depression-Era character in my own novel. Get me up to speed on the language, dialect of the period, along with the clothes and household items and routines, social norms and cultural beliefs. I wanted to understand the depths of poverty, force of will, and drive to go on in spite of the most crippling of circumstances. The classic novel did that in spades. Did so much more.
I have heard that people are turning to big books in the novel coronavirus era. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and The Mirror and the Light offer a strangely satisfying, even comforting dive into the life and chicanery of Thomas Cromwell in Tudor England. Something about losing yourself night after night in the thousand pages, slowly but surely finding more and more as the story unfolds. Something about being reassured that life goes on, humanity recovers itself in spite of corruption and the resurgeance of various plagues. Various pandemics. Our pandemic.
Listening to The Grapes of Wrath night after night filled me with humility, with hope as I rooted for the Joads—Ma, Pa, Uncle John, Noah, Tom, Rose of Shar’n, Al, Ruthie, and Winfield. I worried for them, wondered how they were going to make it through the mud and rain, through abject hunger, through a winter with no crops to pick, no other work, no way to feed themselves. I found myself declaring again and again: If the Joads could get through that, then surely we can get through this. They were a migrant family making a home wherever they went in a tent, a government camp, a boxcar, a willow thicket. In the heart. Grit and persistence gave them their dignity, generosity and cooperation, a willingness to work together, build community.
Steinbeck boils it all down to an image of a turtle struggling through a dusty, drought-stricken field, trying to heave itself and its heavy house up over a ridge at the edge of a road. The turtle’s legs squirm, paddle, its head points in the direction it must go. The high dome of its protective shell, its refuge, comes along and the turtle slowly crosses the road. Tom Joad scoops it up, and later must let it go as Tom looks at what remains of his family’s Oklahoma home. He watches the turtle continue in the same direction it wanted to go all along.
I just finished the book and miss it in the evenings, feel sad and wonder what happened to Okies like the Joads. Their grit, generosity, persistence, humility, and whatever we call home got them through. The lesson has not changed, it is ours to take.