In dubious battle

by John Steinbeck

Paper Book, 1964

Description

Set in the California apple country this novel portrays a strike by migrant workers that metamorphoses from principled defiance into blind fanaticism.

Status

Available

Call number

813/.5/2

Publication

Harmondsworth, Eng. ; New York : Penguin Books, 1979, c1964.

Collection

User reviews

LibraryThing member Joycepa
John Steinbeck is one of my all-time favorite authors. He is to me the epitome of the finest American writing. His writing, particularly about the California valleys he loved so well, is lyrical, with a flowing rhythm that leads you gracefully from one sentence to another.

That’s why In Dubious
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Battle was such a shock. It was hard to believe, as I was reading, that it had been really written by Steinbeck; it seemed far more as if it was written by a Steinbeck wanna-be with zero talent for imitation. The writing is choppy, the characters are barely sketched out, the dialogue seems phony.

Steinbeck wrote In Dubious Battle in 1934, after meeting and interviewing fugitive agricultural labor organizers who took part in the 1933 cotton workers’ strike in the San Joaquin Valley. That strike was organized by the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, which was at that time led by members of the American Communist Party. The characters of Jim and Mac in the book are based at least in part on those interviews.

In Dubious Battle is often put forth as a sort of prequel to The Grapes of Wrath. Both books deal with the same main themes but that’s where the resemblance ends. In terms of writing, characterization and dialogue, there is no comparison; In Dubious Battle seems like the experimentation of a beginner rather than a book written by a writer who by this time had several excellent books published.

Clearly, Steinbeck had great sympathy for the plight of the migrant labor of the time, which at that time was not composed of Hispanics but poor whites. But it’s hard to resist the speculation that in this particular case, Steinbeck let his personal feelings and social agenda dominate the writing instead of informing and enriching it. That’s always risky, and in In Dubious Battle, the result was one of Steinbeck’s worst efforts. He would certainly redeem himself and, more than that, achieve immortality with the same themes in The Grapes of Wrath but five years would have to pass before the appearance of that masterpiece.

I think it’s worth reading In Dubious Battle to experience Steinbeck’s complete canon of works, but I think it’s a shock to the sensibility of any reader at all familiar with Steinbeck’s other, more famous works.
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LibraryThing member MrsLee
A very compelling and interesting book. The character of the working men, the Communists and the hopeless philosopher, as well as the rapacious landowners, was so carefully put forth. The workers seemed mindless and lacking a will, like cows. The Communists heartless, the philosopher compassionate,
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level-headed and hopeless. Even with these broad characters, the story was interesting and well written, hard to put down. Still, I'm not keeping this book.
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LibraryThing member SamSattler
Published in 1936, John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle reads like a snapshot from the period in American history during which workers were perhaps at their lowest point ever. They were suffering greatly because of low wages, an overabundance of unemployed workers willing to work for
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next-to-nothing wages, and employers who were only too happy to take advantage of the tragic economic situation of the day. But by actively recruiting workers, union organizers were placing their own lives and those of the workers in jeopardy. The battle was on, dubious though it may have been.

And along came John Steinbeck to tell the world about it because as he said in his 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech:

“The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”

And, perhaps more in this novel than in anything Steinbeck had written previously, In Dubious Battle does precisely that.

To his credit, Steinbeck exposes both sides for what they are. On the one hand, employers (fruit growers in this case) are shown as exploiters of the working poor, commonly hiring desperate workers and then callously tossing them away in favor of cheaper labor as soon as the opportunity presents itself to do so. On the other, union organizers are exposed as the Communist tools they are, men even willing to get workers killed or maimed if that will somehow advance “the Cause.” In fact, the organizers hope to provoke deadly violence directed at workers in order to fire up the men enough to keep them walking the picket lines.

The book’s two main characters are Mac and Jim. When Mac, a veteran union organizer, senses something special in new recruit Jim, he decides to bring him to the apple orchards where fruit pickers are facing an devastating cut in their daily wages. Jim is a true apostle of the cause and, as Mac teaches him the organizing techniques that work best, Jim aches to be more directly in the cause - and constantly implores Mac to “use him.” At one point, after suffering an injury that leaves him somewhat out of his head, Jim somehow manages to take over the strike, a change that makes Mac very nervous:

Jim said softly, “I wanted you to use me. You wouldn’t because you got to like me to well.” He stood up and walked to a box and sat down on it. “That was wrong. Then I got hurt. And sitting here waiting, I got to know my power. I’m stronger than you, Mac. I’m stronger than anything in the world, because I’m going in a straight line. You and all the rest have to think of women and tobacco and liquor and keeping warm and fed.” His eyes were as cold as wet river stones. “I wanted to be used. Now I’ll use you, Mac. I’ll use myself and you. I tell you, I feel there’s strength in me.”

In Dubious Battle may not be one of John Steinbeck’s most popular or highly acclaimed novels, but it is a powerful one, one that deserves to be read today because it offers such a clear look into America’s not too distant past.
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LibraryThing member msf59
“In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven”

An anatomy of a strike. Jim Nolan is a smart, restless, young man looking for a “cause”. He meets Mac, a union organizer, who quickly places Jim under his wing. They immediately head to Torgas Valley in northern California, to orchard country,
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where the apples are ready to be harvested. The timing is good, because the pickers have just received another pay cut and are angry and disheartened.
How Mac and Jim set this in motion, is the story, told in the tough, scrappy Steinbeck style. The spirit of these men is honorable, especially in the face of such a powerful and violent opponent.
I consider this novel part of Steinbeck’s holy trinity: In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath. Does literature get any better?
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LibraryThing member avidmom
In Dubious Battle centers around two main characters: Jim and Mac. Jim is an embittered young man looking for direction in his life. He finds it as a new convert to “the Party.” Mac, a veteran member of the Party, is Jim’s newly appointed mentor on Jim’s first assignment “in the field.”
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The assignment (from what I could gather) is to sow the seeds of discord in the large group of farm workers in the Torgas Valley in California. Once Jim and Mac arrive, however, they find that they don’t need to sow any seeds; a seed has already been planted. The workers are already unhappy as there has been an unfair wage cut. Jim and Mac’s job, much of it done behind the scenes, then becomes to “help” organize the strike and keep the workers fired up, well-fed and supplied so they don’t lose heart. On the surface this is a battle between the few “haves” and the majority of the “have nots” but mostly it’s a lesson on group psychology: "Men always like to work together. There’s a hunger in men to work together. … It only takes a little spark to get them going.” and manipulation: ...”Don’t you see? Every man who gave part … felt that the work was his own. They all feel responsible … It’s theirs, because something from them went to it. There’s no better way to make men part of a movement than to have them give something to it. I bet they all feel fine right now.” Mac tells Jim they need to use whatever “material” comes their way to keep the men united but what Mac sees as “material” as a way to further “the cause” is pretty eerie. Mac comes off as a very simple-natured creature but his know-how on how to manipulate a large group and how large groups are manipulated is downright creepy.

In Dubious Battle is gritty, raw, and violent. According to the introduction written by Warren French In Dubious Battle was considered Steinbeck’s first major novel, although it was the fifth one of his that was published. Its success even took Steinbeck aback: “… Steinbeck was surprised that this novel, which he thought most readers would find objectionably grim and controversial, reached the best-seller lists. It also received surprisingly few hostile reviews from critics on either the political right or left.” Steinbeck doesn’t seem to be advocating one side over another here, he is simply using the conflict as a vehicle to do one of the things he does so well: explore the human psyche.
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Steinbeck is in good form with this novel, covering the struggle of orchard workers against a rich farmer, giving his usual eloquent description and engrossing characters. I don't hear this one being mentioned too often of Steinbeck's works, which is a shame.
LibraryThing member zojo
I first read this at uni but must have done it in a rush as I didn't remember much of it and it made a greater impressions the second time.
LibraryThing member andyray
This could be considered as a classic of American literature, but it really is more of a sociological story about the beginnings of the vegetable pickers union in California. A good yarn, though.
LibraryThing member jsnrcrny
A wonderful novel about the attempt of a few communist labor organizers in the thirties to bring about a migrant worker strike at an apple orchard. Anticipating Steinbeck's masterpiece, _The Grapes of Wrath_, _In Dubious Battle_ is masterful example of colloquial dialog and memorable
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characterization. Steinbeck represents the interwar working classes with great skill and art, and his telling of Jim Nolan's personal transformation from alienated individual to transcendent member of the collective is executed beautifully.
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LibraryThing member MrBobble
What happens if the fight you've chosen does not matter? That things will continue to be the same. Would you give up everything? Would you run? Steinbeck's novel makes us decide which side of the line we stand on and how far we'd go.
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
1118 In Dubious Battle, by John Steinbeck (read 30 May 1971) I did no post-reading note on this book, but I thought it was pretty 'radical' and one-sided, and thus not in sync with my ideological leanings at the time. Wikipedia has a good article on the book:
In Dubious Battle - Wikipedia, the free
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encyclopedia
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LibraryThing member jeffome
Like this pretty well.....lots of futility of purpose.....(thus the title....i know!!) Interesting characters living a darker lifestyle.....willing to have empathy for the predicament of the workers in that industry, and in those times, but not very supportive of a small group utilizing them as
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pawns in a larger struggle.......pawns that can afford to lose very little and likely end up losing a lot......ok book, but Steinbeck has captured me in a far greater fashion in several of his other books.....can you say 'Grapes of Wrath?'
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LibraryThing member Smiler69
This story centres on two main protagonists, Mac and Jim Nolan. Jim has just joined the Communist party and accompanies Mac on a trip to California where the farm owners are cheating the labourers out of decent wages. Mac's mandate is to agitate the apple pickers and influence them to organize a
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strike, presumably in order to help them earn a better living. The better part of the novel takes place during the strike itself, which Mac has contrived to base out of a local farmer's field where the apple pickers and their families inhabit tents in extremely difficult living conditions with little food and minimal sanitation. I felt Steinbeck was speaking through Mac and was too preachy about labourer's rights for my liking, besides which this book was peopled almost exclusively by men and spoke to what was probably intended as a masculine readership. For example, one comparison of women to rats made me bristle and made me want to drop the book altogether, but I stuck through it for the sake of Steinbeck's skills as a writer and storyteller. I can see why several male members and friends her on LT would love this book, but it is definitely not a book I'll be recommending to anyone as I found very little there to enjoy or admire. Similar topics were treated with far greater skill and mastery in The Grapes of Wrath, which remains my favourite Steinbeck novel, and one of my all-time favourite novels besides.
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LibraryThing member JBreedlove
Classic well written Steinbeck concerning labor strife in California. A precursor to Grapes of Wrath.
LibraryThing member Elpaca
Started listening to this book on Book Radio, and since it was mostly dialogue it was a good way to start it (had to check it out of the library to finish). I love Steinbeck, love labor union history, and understand the influence of the American Communist Party in the movement. Steinbeck showed
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both sides of mob mentality, its usefulness, it's uncontrollable consequences. He also was able to illustrate the fact that both sides of a noble cause are users and easily forget the individual for the sake of the "vision". Fatal flaw of pure communism and pure conservativism, in my opinion.
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LibraryThing member chrisblocker
Considered by some to be among Steinbeck's best, In Dubious Battle is a precursor to The Grapes of Wrath. Several scenes from Steinbeck's Pulitzer winner seem to be foretold and expanded upon in In Dubious Battle. It is the story of members of the Communist Party, organizing a strike of fruit
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pickers in California. If you've read TGoW you'll quickly recognize many parallels—settings, characters that are virtually identical.

In Dubious Battle wasn't The Grapes of Wrath though. It wasn't even Steinbeck. Something was missing in this one. Something very important.

Steinbeck Checklist for In Dubious Battle:
The Struggle of the Underdog: Check
Power of Friendship: Check
Snappy Dialogue: Check
Death: Check
New Life: Check
Story of Redemption: Check
Hope Through Trials: Check
Symbolism Through Death of Animal: Check
Round, Interesting Characters: …

It's unfortunate, because I hate to say that Steinbeck was ever wrong. What's missing is the characters. They're flat. I don't understand who Jim Nelson and Mac McLeod are or where they are coming from. There's story and action, but little character depth. Jim changes—I guess. It's a sudden transformation and it didn't make sense; throughout the whole novel he was just standing around bored, “Hi, my name's Jim. I want something to do.” And then the next thing, he's realizing that he is the only hope for humanity—and that he is within the Matrix. Seriously, it would be the perfect role for Keanu Reeves. Obviously, I didn't care about Jim or Mac. I sort of liked the London character, but only because he was a very likable guy. I'd invite him to a get together and shoot the breeze with him. But he was just as stiff as the others—a trio of cardboard cutouts.

Sometimes the dialogue was typical Steinbeck. But sometimes it really reflected the flatness of the characters. There was quite a bit of telling, one character relaying information to another character that should already know. At times the dialogue was snappy. Other times it seemed phony.

All that being said, I still liked reading In Dubious Battle, but mostly because I saw The Grapes of Wrath in it. It was sort of like meeting the mentor who influenced your hero. I'm glad Steinbeck got it right the second time around.
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LibraryThing member alycias
How did I never hear about this book before? About labor organizing in CA, kinda like all the labor parts of Grapes of Wrath. Yes!
LibraryThing member sammii507
DESCRIPTION FROM BACK OF BOOK
"In the California Apple country, nine hundred migratory workers rise up "in dubious battle" against the landowners. The group takes on a life of its own - stronger than its individual members and more frightening. Led by the doomed Jim Nolan, the strike is founded on
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his tragic idealism on the "courage never to submit or yield.
"In Dubious Battle" cannot be dismissed as a "propaganda" novel - it is another version of the eternal human fight against injustice. It is an especially good version, dramatically intense, beautifully written. It is the real thing; it has a vigor of sheer storytelling that may sweep away many prejudices."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

MY REVIEW

This is the third Steinbeck book I've read, and while it was an excellent, moving book, I think it was missing a little something when compared to "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Of Mice and Men." It was an interesting story, and very moving, but I don't think enough time was really spent on the characters on this one, which I think was one of the greatest strengths of the other two.

Despite this, however, this was an excellent book. I really liked how it showed the strikers not as godlike heroes without fault, but as fallible men who could be just as brutal as the people they were fighting against. While the book was certainly biased towards the strikers (as fits with Steinbeck's politics in his other books), the fact that he made them fallible makes this book all the more realistic. I also really liked the way Steinbeck makes the scope of the battle the strikers were fighting for very clear. It was not something to be won in a day, or a year, or even a lifetime, but an idealistic war that even those fighting it didn't understand exactly. My mom, who works for a union, should definitely read this book. Both as an inspiration and as a cautionary tale.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
In my experience there are two kinds of Steinbeck novels. There are the character-driven stories that are often entertaining (think Cannery Row) and there are the moral tragedies where big lessons are learned (think Grapes of Wrath and The Pearl.) This definitely falls into the latter category. Two
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men join a group of apple pickers in the 1930s with the goal of getting them to strike for better wages.

Mac and Jim are the men behind the cause, recruiting the local leader, London, to gain the trust of the workers. Jim is new to the world of unions, but not to injustice. He is naive at first, but grows stronger as he focuses on his purpose. The battle escalates and the belief that the men perpetuate is that the ends justifies the means, no matter who is hurt along the way. The men, who are actually fighting for the cause, are often the manipulated pawns of bigger men with bigger goals. The character of the Doctor gave some interesting perspective to the motivation behind Mac’s work.

It's good; the writing is crisp and vivid. But I feel like it's a precursor to greater work. The partnership and friendship that grows between Jim and Mac is better personified between George and Lennie in "Of Mice and Men." The strike for higher wages and the struggle for a better life for the workers are better demonstrated in "The Grapes of Wrath." In Dubious Battle is a good story and a tragic one, but it didn't dig quite as deep for me.

BOTTOM LINE: It’s not my favorite Steinbeck, but he’s written so many that I love. As with his other work this story gives a voice to an often overlooked group of people and I think it would have been particularly powerful during the time in which it was originally released.

“There’s no better way to make men part of a movement than to have them give something to it.”

“It seems to me that a man has engaged in a blind and fearful struggle out of a past he can’t remember, into a future he can’t foresee nor understand. And man has met and defeated every obstacle, every enemy except one. He cannot win over himself.”
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LibraryThing member jbarr5
Indubious Battle by John Steinbeck
1936 original about labor strikes and how the workers during the Depression years in CA. Jim Nolan, the leader as he strives to find his identity.
Includes the authors writing throughout his life. Starts out when they gather to pick the apples and there is talk of
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them striking. They band together and come up with white clothes to help with the birthing of a baby.
As long as they all feel like they contributed they are as one. They strive for hope, better life, etc. The men talk to others who work in another farm and they talk of the barricades the authorities will put up as their wages go down.
Details of what is to come as they vacant a farm and things heat up. Love references to the Grapes of Wrath during this book. Love the story of how those who've gone before us have fought for their rights to make our lives easier today.
I received this book from National Library Service for my BARD (Braille Audio Reading Device).
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LibraryThing member RBeffa
One more for the American Author challenge for July. A Steinbeck I had never read before.

The opening was intriguing, like stepping into a noirish 1930's film. I half expected Jimmy Cagney to step through a door. I had to take a look again at the publication history and note this was first
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published in 1936. No wonder! The blurb on the back cover of my 1961 edition describes this as "Steinbeck's brilliant forerunner of the Pulitzer Prize-winning THE GRAPES OF WRATH."

I was surprised to find that there were many elements of the book that I disliked quite a bit. This is not a happy story. The "good guys", well, the red leader, 'Mac', goes about the union business as if it is war, because casualties, "collateral damage" lets call it at best, acceptable losses more realistically, are not only acceptable to him, they are fuel for the cause. I came to hate him. It is hard not to root for people who only want a living wage and don't want their existing wages cut by the landowners to pick the apple crop. I think Steinbeck has managed to write something that is still relevant 80 years after publication and that shows the good and the bad of man. I use the word man rather than mankind because if there is one element that reflects this as a product of several generations ago it is the lack of strong women characters. I also recognize that women's rights is not what Steinbeck's social cause is here. This is about worker's rights. Steinbeck certainly shows us the bad and ugly of the depression and how unions had to fight to be, and fight for workers. However, the big however, the communist agitators can be almost as ugly as the big bad employers who buy off the cops and let vigilantes have free reign.

Steinbeck was shining a light on a horrible social cost of crop pickers and the great depression of the '30's. This is interesting history even though fiction. Steinbeck makes comments on quite a variety of things and peoples throughout the novel and it kept striking me how true these observations were ... even though Steinbeck wrote this 80 years ago. This is a rather disturbing and scary book.

and the end will kill you.
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LibraryThing member flippinpages
Didactic writing that takes away from storyline and characterization. Didn't like the abrupt ending either.
LibraryThing member Stahl-Ricco
“I’ve heard he could lick five cops with his bare hands.”
Jim grinned. “I guess he could, but every time he went out he met six.”

Jim Nolan talking about his father Roy. Pretty much sums up this book - the working man being out muscled by the system. Jim joins up with the "reds" and a guy
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named Mac and they try to organize a group of apple pickers to strike for higher wages. The story unfolds slowly, but picks up steam at the end. And I felt anger and sorrow throughout, mostly because the plight of the working "stiff" seemed, and seems, unalterable. Even the "reds" seem to take advantage of them even as they fight for them. And the ending really ties the whole thing together - for both sides!

The book really resonates with the time, and with our time. Rich vs. poor. No one really helping the "little" guy. The cyclical sadness of poverty. Whether it be the orchard owner, the police, or Trump, the folks on the lower rung seem to be damned to that lower rung. Err....

On a softer note, it sure was cool to read this as a precursor to "Grapes of Wrath". I didn't even know that this was what it is, sort of the set up story that creates the situation that the Joads will find themselves in. I wish I had read them in order, but reading it now takes nothing away from it. Steinbeck is just that good!
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LibraryThing member Anniik
DESCRIPTION FROM BACK OF BOOK
"In the California Apple country, nine hundred migratory workers rise up "in dubious battle" against the landowners. The group takes on a life of its own - stronger than its individual members and more frightening. Led by the doomed Jim Nolan, the strike is founded on
Show More
his tragic idealism on the "courage never to submit or yield.
"In Dubious Battle" cannot be dismissed as a "propaganda" novel - it is another version of the eternal human fight against injustice. It is an especially good version, dramatically intense, beautifully written. It is the real thing; it has a vigor of sheer storytelling that may sweep away many prejudices."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

MY REVIEW

This is the third Steinbeck book I've read, and while it was an excellent, moving book, I think it was missing a little something when compared to "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Of Mice and Men." It was an interesting story, and very moving, but I don't think enough time was really spent on the characters on this one, which I think was one of the greatest strengths of the other two.

Despite this, however, this was an excellent book. I really liked how it showed the strikers not as godlike heroes without fault, but as fallible men who could be just as brutal as the people they were fighting against. While the book was certainly biased towards the strikers (as fits with Steinbeck's politics in his other books), the fact that he made them fallible makes this book all the more realistic. I also really liked the way Steinbeck makes the scope of the battle the strikers were fighting for very clear. It was not something to be won in a day, or a year, or even a lifetime, but an idealistic war that even those fighting it didn't understand exactly. My mom, who works for a union, should definitely read this book. Both as an inspiration and as a cautionary tale.
Show Less
LibraryThing member piefuchs
A wonderful book that seems like a testing ground for the far superior "The Grapes of Wrath". Moving and memorable.

Awards

Language

Original publication date

1936

ISBN

014004888X / 9780140048889

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