I strutted into my dad’s elementary school classroom in my blue calico Laura Ingalls Wilder dress with its matching red calico bonnet and apron with a Boxcar Children book clutched in my hand.
“How cute!” said a girl who looked a year or two older than I was.
“Is this your daughter, Mr. O?” another asked.
“Look at her clothes!”
I grinned, unable to keep my outgoing nature tucked behind my lips.
“Yes, this is my daughter, Laura. She’s here to read you part of a Boxcar Children book. Ready, Laura?” my Dad showed me to a plastic chair and I smoothed my petticoats and dress and sat.
“How old are you?” someone asked.
“Five…or six…or seven,” I answered. (Actually, I don’t remember which of the three ages is correct.) I opened the book to the first page and began to read aloud the Aldens’ latest mystery adventure.
I have loved to read ever since I learned how at four or five years old, and though the Boxcar Children books were high on my list of favorites, the dress I wore that day told the world what books had lodged themselves in the top spot of my soul: all nine Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I told people I was named for Laura. I wore that dress as much as I could—to church, to birthday parties, to my dad’s school, to my ‘log cabin’ (the underneath area of a bush-like tree in the backyard).
Though I have long outgrown the dress, which my mom sewed for me as a Christmas gift, those books are still my favorites, ever. I re-read them every year, from Little House in the Big Woods to The First Four Years, and my favorite book within this favorite series changes with my age. As a child, the first three books inspired me the most. As an older girl, On The Banks of Plum Creek. As a teenager, The Long Winter and Little Town on the Prairie. As a young adult, These Happy Golden Years.
I picked up The Grapes of Wrath almost a month ago and trudged through the first fifty pages with low spirits. The book did not grip me immediately as East of Eden did, and I was worried that I would take forever to read it. But once Tom Joad found his family and discovered they wanted to leave Oklahoma and head to paradise California, where they could live in a white house with plenty of land and fruit trees in the yard, my mind became glued to the narrative. As the Joads purchased a jalopy and loaded it with all their belongings, much like the Ingalls family does with a covered wagon throughout the Little House series, I was hopeful for them, hopeful that they’d find something good in California, even if it wasn’t a white house.
But I didn’t know the extent to which they would suffer until I started down Route 66 with them and ached for each one of their losses and deflated dreams. The Ingalls children faced teasing for being ‘country people,’ and so did the Joads—but they were more than country people. They were Okies. Completely unwanted people not only in the land that held their blood and sweat in its red dirt but also in the land where they sought freedom from the tractors and corporate farmers and the poverty that gnawed the flesh from their children’s bones.
One of my favorite aspects of the book was that, once I got used to reading the Oklahoma dialect, I connected with the Joads and the other migrant people, and though much of their story is sad, the people find comfort in one another, “And because they were lonely and perplexed, because they had all come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were all going to a new mysterious place, they huddled together; they talked together; they shared their lives, their food, and the things they hoped for in the new country” (203). The humanity that comes from the migrants’ realized fears and minuscule joys is the most powerful aspect of this book.
It was my first time reading The Grapes of Wrath, though I stared at the original cover as framed in my local Barnes & Noble store each time I went to read books there as a kid. The image of the man looking out over a line of loaded jalopies, his wife and child by his side, stayed with me and contributed to my interest in this book.
And I loved it the entire time I was reading it (aside from the slow first fifty pages). I love it more than East of Eden. I am not sure why that is, but it is. I’ve heard people say they hate it, or were bored by it, but it pulled me to its people the way Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books did when I was young and still do today. I even think the book’s ending is hugely powerful, if strange. Those who read the book before me might understand that, might understand what the ending says about Rose of Sharon and about the Joads as a family.
I could have a discussion on this book all day long, but I’ll stop here and let you read it for yourself, maybe for the first time, maybe to see if it’s any good since you detested your first reading of it. Let me know what you think, even if you don’t agree with me.
I’m linking up with Kirsten Oliphant at Not So (Small) Stories this week. Join us! http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/05/12/small-stories-eighth-edition/ I still haven’t figured out the pretty button picture…oh well.