Between the Lines Book Club: The Worst Hard Time

between the lines book club logoThis is our last week with The Grapes of Wrath.  If you are in the Sacramento area, join us at Arden Dimick Library, 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA, on September 28, 2014 at 2PM for our in-person meeting.  Meanwhile. share your comments below!

Today’s post doubles as a book review.  The Grapes of Wrath tells a fascinating, harrowing, fictionalized story of those who left the Dust Bowl to come to California.  If you are interested in the history of The Great Depression, than I highly recommend Tim Egan’s nonfiction book about those who did not leave the Dust Bowl:  The Worst Hard Time.

cover of The Worst Hard Time


This book is powerful, informative, and memorable.  It will be a long time before I forget how to keep centipedes from invading a dugout home (iron the walls when your wallpaper starts squirming, or douse the walls with boiling water).  This books vividly demonstrates why the Joads are so determined to leave their home and why so many other people were determined to stay.

dust storm hits town

This book contains many helpful tips in addition to the importance of ironing your walls at regular intervals.  To avoid dust pneumonia, keep your windows covered at all times with dampened curtains (a horrifying number of people dies of dust pneumonia, curtains or no curtains).  You can eat tumbleweeds but they aren’t very good – try soaking them or pickling them.  Be friendly with your neighbors – when the bank seizes everything you own, they’ll buy your things at auction and give them back to you.  More importantly, the book points out the human causes of the Dust Bowl, and points to practices today that do further damage to the ravaged plains.

The plains were plowed under by homesteaders throughout the 1920s.  Turns out that sod, that part of the land where grass roots make a mat under the dirt, is essential to keeping the dirt on the ground.  In the 1930’s the dust storms began and by 1935 and estimated 250,000 people had left, having lost their homes.

The worst storm, on Black Sunday, occurred on April 14, 1935.  More than 300,000 tons of topsoil were blown away in one day – twice as much dirt as was dug up to make the Panama Canal.  Egan writes in a matter that is personal (he takes care to include people we come to know and care about) and visceral, as in this passage:

 “Every spike of barbed-wire fence was glowing with electricity, channeling the energy of the storm. Ike and his friends were a few yards out when the dirt got them. It came quicker than most dusters and as deceptive because no wind was ahead of it. Not a sound, not a breeze, and then it was on top of them. They were slammed to the ground and engulfed by a wall, straight up and down, the dust abrasive and strong, boiling up, twisting.”

dust storm aftermath

The Worst Hard Time has the excitement of a Hollywood disaster movie and the intense relatability that comes from the author focusing on the lives of specific people.  It has a story to tell that is both relevant to our past and to our future, as we look at the environmental impact of our activities.  If you enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath, (if enjoyed is the right word for such a moving book) the you will enjoy The Worst Hard Time.

“Nobody knew what to call it, a cloud ten thousand feet high from ground to top.

“It was not a rain cloud. Nor was it a cloud holding ice pellets. It was not a twister. It was thick like coarse animal hair; it was alive. People close to it described a feeling of being in a blizzard — a black blizzard, they called it — with an edge like steel wool.”

– From The Worst Hard Time

man walking through dust



Between the Lines Book Club: John Steinbeck

between the lines book club logo

This month on Between the Lines we are discussing The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  Leave comments here, or better yet join us at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento, CA at 2PM on September 28, 2014.

John Steinbeck’s life and writings are deeply tied to California.  Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, in 1902.  He attended Stanford University on and off for six years before officially dropping out.  After trying to earn a living as a freelance writer in New York City, he came back to California, married Carol Henning, and became a caretaker at Lake Tahoe.  During the Great Depression, he moved to Pacific Grove, where he fished and crabbed and wrote with paper and money provided by his parents.

Steinbeck family home

The home in which Steinbeck was raised is now a museum and restaurant.

Steinbeck’s first hit was his fifth book, Tortilla Flat.  This book concerns a group of friends who live in an impoverished  neighborhood on the outskirts of Monterey.  Although the book was a commercial success, Steinbeck felt it was misunderstood, claiming that he did not mean to belittle or patronize his characters.  Steinbeck’s next three novels, In Dubious BattleOf Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath directly addressed the Great Depression.  His next book, Cannery Row, was a fictionalized description of life in Monterey.  The character “Mary Talbot”, the depressed wife of a struggling writer, is based on Steinbeck’s wife, Carol.  The character “Doc” is based on Steinbeck’s best friend, Ed Ricketts.

Carol and John

Carol and John

Steinbeck was a war correspondent in WWII.  He travelled through Europe, North Africa, and Italy, writing human interest pieces about the lives of soldiers.You can read more about his service in WWII in this article from San Jose University.  Steinbeck also covered the war in Vietnam.  Despite his life-long leftist leanings, Steinbeck was in favor of the Vietnam War, which two of his sons fought in.

Steinbeck in Vietnam

Steinbeck died at the age of 66 in 1968, of heart failure.  He had written 29 books as well as plays and screenplays.  He cited William Faulker and Ernest Hemingway as the authors he most admired.  He is buried at Salinas, California, home of the John Steinbeck Museum.

You can see a short video about Steinbeck’s life on

Between the Lines Book Club: The Grapes of Wrath

between the lines book club logoHey everybody, welcome back to Book Club!  Between the Lines is a virtual book club that meets every Friday.  It’s also an in-person book club that meets monthly in Sacramento, California at the Arden Dimick Library (891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA 95864).  Book Club meetings are at 2PM.  Here’s the Fall schedule and theme:

Rising Up:  Personal and Political Struggles for Freedom

All Meetings at Arden Dimick Library, at 2PM.

Sept 28:  The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

October 26:  The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

November 16:  The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath was a long, passionate project for Steinbeck.  In 1936 he wrote a series of magazine articles for the San Francisco News.  The paper published the articles alongside photos by Dorothea Lange and the articles were later collected in a book, Harvest Gypsies.

cover of The Harvest Gypsies

Steinbeck gee up in California and did some farm labor while putting himself through college.  He found writing and researching  The Grapes of Wrath to be a nerve-wracking experience.  He kept a journal, which is still in print.  In the journal, he agonizes over his “lack of genius” and his “nerves”.     In addition to being passionately committed to telling the story of migrants, he was worried about war and personal matters as well.  According to The Telegraph, when he finished the book he said, “It isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book.”

cover of Working Days


The Grapes of Wrath was instantly beloved and loathed.  We’ll talk more next week about the haters –  Grapes of Wrath was banned and literally burned.  It also became an instant best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for best novel.  In 1962 he won the Nobel prize for his collected writings.  Here’s an excerpt of the presentation speech.  you can find the full speech at  You can also see a video of Steinbeck’s banquet speech after the ceremony.

Among the masters of modern American literature who have already been awarded this Prize – from Sinclair Lewis to Ernest Hemingway – Steinbeck more than holds his own, independent in position and achievement. There is in him a strain of grim humour which, to some extent, redeems his often cruel and crude motif. His sympathies always go out to the oppressed, to the misfits and the distressed; he likes to contrast the simple joy of life with the brutal and cynical craving for money. But in him we find the American temperament also in his great feeling for nature, for the tilled soil, the wasteland, the mountains, and the ocean coasts, all an inexhaustible source of inspiration to Steinbeck in the midst of, and beyond, the world of human beings.

The Grapes of Wrath is taught in high schools and in universities around the world and has inspired plays as well as the famous film adaptation directed by John Ford.  Grapes of Wrath has had a lasting impact on the way people think about poverty and about migration.  In California, the book stays relevant throughout the years.  While the demographics of California have changed, migration and farm labor remain controversial, vital issues.