The Quiet Grace of Rosasharn Joad

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.

29 thoughts on “The Quiet Grace of Rosasharn Joad

  1. I read The Grapes of Wrath back in college in 1980. I remember not wanting to read it and a little “perturbed” at my Literature professor for assigning it. But I really loved the book! I reread it last year (what a book to read during a pandemic, huh)? I hadn’t remembered much about it but loved it the second time around too. What a great book.

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      • I haven’t read Invisible Man but have it on our bookshelf as my youngest read it in high school. It’s always fun to go back and reread classics. I love The Old Man and the Sea and was thinking the other day that it might be a good time for a reread of that one. Happy reading Jeff! I enjoy your blog so much- you are a good writer.

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  2. I’m sorry but I giggled at the thought of you calling anyone a f*cking b*tch! Also enjoyed your gentle teasing of Susan. Maybe she is “mirroring.” I read The Grapes of Wrath for English in the 8th grade. As a 13 year old, it went right over my head. Because I barely remember it, and because of this post, I will read it again, and looking forward to it.

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    • I don’t know why they give books like that to teenagers. Quality young adult fiction would be so much more relevant. I wonder how many people don’t read classics because they read them in high school. My father absolutely wigged when I cussed out Mrs Eddie. It took months to re-earn his respect. I hope you like the book. I’m getting to the point that I’m worried about finishing and feeling lost.

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  3. Like the others, I read this book a long time ago and remember liking it but couldn’t tell you any of the details. I have a few books I know that I liked way back when and have wanted to read again. I may have to add this one to the list.
    I laughed at A.S.S. I think if I were to tell Bob about it he would say that someone in this house suffers from A.R.S. Although I agree that I think everyone in this house suffers from this same malady.

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    • I’m sure after a year of lockdown, most families have a bit of A. __. S. in their household.I’ve been in a pretty big reading funk for well over a year, having trouble getting into books. Revisiting books I’ve read that I know I like has been my best strategy to get reading. The one new book I loved was ‘the space between worlds’. Highly recommend it but I should give warning, it’s a multiverse plot.

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      • I’ll check it out. I’ve been on a reading spree this year. I can’t seem to write much but I am always into a book. My two favorites this year have been non-fiction surprisingly. Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker and Educated by Tara Westover. I found the study of mental illness very intriguing (and hopeful) in the first and in the second, although it is a story well beyond what I experienced as a child, there were parts I could certainly relate to. I would recommend these as well.

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  4. I need to reread this. I was in a high school play version; we used the script that won a Tony. I played a male campground owner and I remember nothing of the plot. :/ Adding it to the pile at my bedside still to be read..

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    • Trying to figure out how this could be a play that appeals to teenagers. I can’t do it.

      I was in a high school play where I played a handyman names Flick. It was a really small part and no one ever said my name. I made myself a wooden tool box and painted FLICK on the side. The people in the audience thought it said FUCK.

      I can already tell that this is a book that will leave a hole in my life when I’m done. I really love it.

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  5. Great review (and post about self and family) and it makes me love the book before I’ve read it. “It seems odd to review a book before I’ve finished it.” That’s so funny. It’s the only way I ever really want to write a review, and I love to see someone doing this, especially so well. xoxo

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  6. I remember being transfixed by this book when I read it about 60 years ago. I’m not sure why that word popped into my mind when writing the previous sentence but it popped in and I went with it. Two other books I remember loving in my youth are The Good Earth by Pearl Buck, which I have not read since and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin which I have read maybe two or three times since. So now I want to go back and read about Rosasharn and life in China. I use the term read to mean listen on audiobook, as that seems to be the only way for me to get through a book lately.
    I love the way you weave a book recommendation into story of your family life. Does Susan know you post about her “condition?”

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    • After 8 years of blogging, Susan has a think skin. She’s only told me to change stuff a couple of times and it was stuff about others, not her. One of the librarians at work is obsessed with Jane Austin. Someday I’m going to need to read a book to understand the hoopla.

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  7. On my library Overdrive for audiobooks I am now number 14 out of 3 for Grapes of Wrath and 3 out of 2 on The Good Earth. The inevitable will happen and I will bet notices on both the same day. I let you know about Grapes.

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  8. I remember that scene. I went through a thing about 10 years ago where I read all of the “classics” American, British. French, Russian… I read Grapes in high school and enjoyed it. Another book I devoured in high school was 1984.

    I haven’t been able to read a book in over a year. Can’t concentrate or I fall asleep.

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    • My reading got stuck at the start of the pandemic. It’s mostly back, but I’ve been rereading a lot of books I’ve already read. That scene, as it turns out, is the very last scene in the book. It leaves you feeling hopeless. The Joads are in a slow spiral towards death. I watched the movie last night and the ending was just the opposite. All full of hope with smiling characters gazing fondly into the future. So Hollywood. I really didn’t like 1984 (which I reread when Trump got elected). A third of the book was that manifesto, which it turns out was BS made up by the government. I felt so cheated that I read that.

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