I recently finished reading The Grapes of Wrath, a powerful fictional account of a down on their luck Great Depression era family relocating from Oklahoma to California, and trying unsuccessfully to make a living there. It is powerful in the sense that it is an engaging story and well written by a talented author. And also because it is gut wrenching to contemplate the impossibly difficult living circumstances of the Joad family. It is strong social commentary, pitting the wealthy and established (which are very negatively portrayed) against the indigent (who are the "good guys"). Steinbeck surely has a political agenda writing the book, and is persuasive in his literary means.
I read this book many years ago, but was motivated to read it again as Steven will likely be reading it for his English class.
One measure of a good book is when it leaves you thinking about it for days afterwards, which this one does. Of course, it doesn't help that there is no resolution at the end of the book--it kind of just ends when things are about at their worst. While Steinbeck does provide some glimpses as to what motivated the Californians in their cruel treatment of the Okies, the portrayal is largely one-sided, with the Okies on higher moral ground. Things are rarely so black and white in real life, and of course there were helpful and magnanimous locals, as well as scoundrels among the real Okies. These were very hard times and the nation hadn't figured out how to solve the many tough economic problems. (In fact, we still haven't.)
Growing up mostly in California I also took an interest in the historical setting. My mother grew up in California during this time and I want to ask her what things were like during the Depression, and whether she was aware of the "Okies" pouring into the state. I also wonder how things ultimately turned out for all these newcomers--did they settle permanently? Are their descendants a significant portion of the population, and doing much better financially? (I guess I'm looking for closure to the book.)
I'm currently reading a non-fiction book on a related topic--"The Worst Hard Time", by Timothy Egan. This is an account of the Dust Bowl area, and the difficulties faced in the 1930's by those who settled the southern High Plains of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, especially those who stuck it out (as opposed to those who fled to California, for instance). A very interesting read so far.