There seems to be another Steinbeck dust-up. Apparently Bob Burke has taken Mr. Steinbeck to task for his treatment of us Okies in his book, John Steinbeck was Wrong about Oklahoma! Dennie Hall, Books editor for the Oklahoman, in the September 28th paper didn’t think the book was all that, even though he remains a Burke fan. Then on the heels of this article I see an article in the November 5th Oklahoma Gazette, by William W. Savage comparing the Burke book with Rick Wartzman’s Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I think the comparison is probably unfair since both authors were trying to accomplish totally different objectives. But whatever the discussion, I find it tiresome.
Stop the Steinbeck madness, could it be time to explore some other alternatives to literature about Oklahoma during the dustbowl, depression and the migration to California, besides the “Grapes of Wrath”?
During the 2006 Oklahoma Reads Oklahoma statewide reading and discussion program, Sanora Babb’s book, Whose Names are Unknown (University of Oklahoma Press, 2004) was selected as one of the nominations. This is a beautifully written portrayal of the dust bowl in Oklahoma and the migration of workers. Written by an Oklahoman born in Oklahoma Territory in 1907, who actually worked with refugee farmers in the FSA camps of 1930s California, it equals any dust bowl book with it’s honesty, humanity and sensitivity to a people laid low by tragedies not of their making.
Excerpt: “We’d better go in or we’ll choke,” he said bitterly. The dust rolled over them in thin clouds, stealthy, quiet, moving as if by an obscure power. There was no sound. They retreated into the dugout. Milt was last. He shielded his eyes and nose and looked up. The top was far above him, taller than a tree. Then it passed over the house and he could see nothing but dust before his eyes. The barn was a mere shadow. He noticed in surprise that the dust was fine and soft, unlike the harsh grains that cut against his skin on windy days. He felt it in his throat like fur and had to cough. He went in and shut the door securely, kicking a sack against the crack.”
Another book, by Oklahoman, Rilla Askew, about people struggling through the Great Depression is Harpsong. She is the equal to any great American novelist around. This is no easy read but worth the effort. Poetic and deeply moving, it captures life on the road and riding the rails during the Great Depression.
So give Steinbeck a break, turn to something new on an old topic.