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Fruitful Discussion

Analysis of "Grapes of Wrath" tied to study of "Agriculture & The American Identity"

In choosing a book for the Northampton Community College (NCC) monthly book group at the Paul and Harriet Mack Library, Associate Professor of Grapes of Wrath DiscussionEnglish Kelly Allen couldn't have come up with a more perfect pick than John Steinbeck's powerful classic The Grapes of Wrath. Published in 1939, the novel depicts the struggles of the Joad family, tenant farmers who flee the devastated Dust Bowl for California during the Great Depression. The Dust Bowl encompassed the Plains states, where severe draught and massive dust storms destroyed the livelihoods of farmers there. As did many Dust Bowl migrants, the Joads experienced hardship, the loss of family members and hunger during their journey and even after their arrival out west.

The novel's major concerns-Americans' relationship to the land, ideas of land ownership and concepts of American identity related to agriculture-closely connect to Agriculture and the American Identity, NCC's National Endowment for the Humanities 2014-2015 theme. The discussion, led by Allen, was part of the programming for the series.

Participants, NCC faculty and staff members, saw many facets to the novel. In answer to Kelly's question about the American character of the novel, some drew parallels to the displacement and discrimination suffered by people throughout American history, such as the mass expulsions of Native Americans from their homes in the 18th and 19th centuries. Others saw the Joad family's resistance to their plight in light of the American Revolution and the fight for civil rights, an imperative that continues to this day. Barbara Love, instructional assistant, reading, writing Coordinator of the Learning Center related her grandparents' Depression-era refusal to surrender their ranch to a bank threatening foreclosure. Dr. James I. Benner, Director, Center for Teaching & Learning/Assessment, framed the novel within the tradition of the protest novel, a genre not limited to American fiction.

In addition to discussing specifics of the book, the group pondered broad questions of human fallibility, the environment, the nature of people's attachment to land or place, community, spiritual and economic links to the land, and differing concepts of the "American Dream.

For Allen, Steinbeck's strongest message comes at The Grapes of Wrath's conclusion, when Rose of Sharon Joad saves a man from starvation through her own milk, which would have gone to her dead baby. "The novel is about the human spirit," Allen said. "In the end, Steinbeck was saying that people who have the least give the most. Community can be counted on at times of greatest need."

Other NEH events coming up soon include a film screening of The Grapes of Wrath, starring Henry Fonda on October 20 at 7:00 p.m. at the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas, at SteelStacks, and a screening of The Farmer and the Horse, a documentary about young farmers, on November 6 at Lipkin Theatre, Kopecek Hall Main Campus.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton will be the subject of the next book group discussion, on November 4, at 11:00 a.m. at the Paul and Harriett Mack Library.