Rosasharn: that’s a marble-mouth pronunciation of Rose of Sharon, the third or fourth oldest child of Ma and Pa Joad. Blessed with a beautiful name at birth, her whole family mangles it as if they’ve crammed a massive plug of tobacco in their mouth. Her age is unclear and hard to compare against her brother Al’s age. I can’t tell who came first. With Al, we get no markers. He drives; he drinks beer, he chases women, but he’s a country boy from the thirties—the 1930s—he might be thirteen. Of course Rose of Sharon is married,,, and pregnant. But her brother Tom drops a clue, “afore I went in the joint, Rosasharn was jus’ a little kid.” + What’s a little kid? Eleven? Twelve? Certainly not fourteen—not old enough to make Rose of Sharon a married and pregnant adult after Tom’s four-year stint in jail. Maybe she and Al are twins. That’s what I’m going with, sixteen-year-old twins.
These are all characters from John Steinbeck’s masterpiece novel The Grapes of Wrath.
+ Disclosure: this isn’t a quote from the book. I paraphrased but tried to get the dialect right. There’s no way I’m going to spend forty-five minutes looking for the exact quote.
Do you know the story? The Joads have farmed their land for generations. Over the years, like every other farmer in the county, they used their land as collateral for bank loans. Because this is seventy years before Elizabeth Warren founded the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the bank takes possession of countless adjoining properties and joins the growing trend of industrial mega-farming. The Joads are out on their butts. The Grapes of Wrath is the depressing account of what befalls the Joads and the other Okies trying to restart their lives in the promised-land mirage of California.
Susan and I read this book together before we got married. While we read it, and for months after, we walked around our apartment blurting out “Rosasharn.” Inexplicably, we pronounced it Ross-a-sharn (rhymes with floss-of-yarn). Rosasharn. Why did we keep on saying that? Well, I have Tourette Syndrome. On occasion, I get stuck on a word or a phrase and feel compelled to repeat it for no reason at all. Rosasharn. Susan? She has A.S.S.
A.S.S. is a well-documented ailment in my house—Annoying Susan Syndrome. It’s eerily similar to Tourette Syndrome. Repeating words. mimicking speech, refusal to let a topic go long after it’s driving everyone nuts. I do all these things too, but I blame Tourette. With Susan, and to some extent our kids, we blame A.S.S. I’ve researched this several times, Tourette isn’t contagious. Only A.S.S. can explain why these tics are so prevalent in our home.
I’m rereading the book and I’m halfway done. Because twenty-five years is a long time to retain the plot and details of a story, no matter how great, it seems like I’m reading it for the first time. A few weeks ago, Swartacus of I am an American Aquarium Drinker posted a review of the Grapes of Wrath (the movie not the book). Like me, when Swartacus blogs on a topic, he’s really blogging about himself. What he writes appeals to me because he’s a working stiff and a parent and sober. Also, like me, he’s trying to figure himself out. When I read his post, I suddenly wanted to reread the book.
So what do I think? Holy God, this is a good book. In a recent review of a different book I really liked, I wrote “Is it a five-star book? I guess not. It’s not on par with The Grapes of Wrath. Five stars is reserved for genius. But I’d give it a solid four.” But even as I wrote that, I knew I had no idea what kind of book The Grapes of Wrath is. I remembered really liking it, but I couldn’t say why it’s genius.
It’s the languid pace, the faultless storytelling, the lovable characters, all flawed, but after only three hundred pages, already like family. About those characters: they each possess an understated capableness. Yes, some are hot-heads, some immature, some stupid, but each knows what’s expected of them and acts accordingly. The tension in the book comes from the situation, not the characters. The family faces their trials together.
Rose of Sharon is a child thrust into adulthood by her decisions and bad luck. In her first appearance, Steinbeck describes her physically in a way that conjures an image of an adolescent. Her ongoing and often ridiculous fears for her fetus paint a picture of a young girl. Yet from the start she holds powerful presence. She’s her mother’s go-to person when Granma needs comforting. Ma repeats her name, over and over, simply because she loves to hear herself say it. Rose of Sharon’s a star, Steinbeck says at one point, with her husband trapped and rotating in her gravitational field.
Poetic nuances like this are scattered throughout the story. Steinbeck doesn’t call a spade a spade, so to speak, but he carefully describes the scene where Tom Joad kills an acquaintance with a shovel. It’s an ugly story beautifully written. Like Rose of Sharon, all of the characters leave me proud. Even when Tom berates a self-pitying man with one eye, it’s obvious he only has the man’s well-being at heart.
It seems odd to review a book before I’ve finished it. I’m certain these characters that I’ve raved about will let me down at some point. That’s what family members do. Just like I let my parents down that time I called my Spanish teacher a f—king bitch. But Steinbeck has written these characters so well and so believably, I’ll take whatever he gives me and forgive them.
I only remember one scene from when I read the book decades ago. Near the end of the story, at Ma’s urging, Rose of Sharon unselfishly saves a man’s life. It isn’t a triumph, it’s not uplifting, it’s just another ugly episode in the hard life that the Joads face with self-respect and grace.
Read this book.