On Red Ponies and Sour Grapes

One of my favourite books as a child was Roald Dahl’s Matilda. I was very fond of the main character as she did something which few of my friends thought was cool: she read stuff. Not just any novel, of course. Dahl included an impressive list containing books by Hemingway, Kipling, Faulkner, and other eminent writers. Needless to say I’m not as brilliant as Matilda. I never managed to develop my telekinesis skills nor did I read Dahl’s Chickens at age five. But I was intrigued by the mysterious titles she read, and would read many of them as I got older.

It took me a long time to get to Steinbeck, one of the writers Matilda is fond of. I did check out some of his novellas, including Of Mice and Men, and enjoyed them. But looming in the background was Grapes of Wrath, one of his masterpieces and over 500 pages long. Would I be able to get through such a massive novel?

Two weeks ago I had a go at The Red Pony, which was for some reason located in the children’s section of my library. It was short yet beautiful and narrated the adventures of a young boy on a ranch living with horses and a grumpy old dad. I’ve always had a soft spot for Westerns and read every E. Annie Proulx novel my local library had when I was in high school. There’s something irresistable about tales of horses and deserts.

But after The Red Pony, I thought it was time to sit down and read Grapes of Wrath. It did not disappoint. In fact I found myself doing that rare thing of staying up until way after midnight because the book was too gripping to put down. The story, of course, is about an Oklahoma family fleeing the Dust Bowl during the Depression years. They travel to California in search for work and discover that this state is no paradise either. No upbeat stuff, and rather slow (particularly at the beginning). But I couldn’t help myself, the book just dragged me along, and I could almost picture myself sitting on top of an overloaded truck on a sunny highway. I’m oldfashioned enough to like a good story with a plot and characters I can believe in, and Grapes of Wrath offered all that. It’s fashionable to dismiss this kind of books as sentimental, sure, but I was gripped by the vivid descriptions of the economic mechanisms that cause people to be driven out of their homes. Surprisingly little has changed after all those decades. Banks are still anonymous molochs and individual people still don’t stand a chance against them. This message, and the anger that comes with it, is still excellent food for thought in the twenty-first century.

This week I’m reading Valley of the Dolls, though. Sometimes one just needs a light, funny, proto-chicklit novel to make it through rainy days.

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