Saturday, August 5, 2017

Beth’s Books: A Comparison

If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ‘em!

~~ John Waters

There are many books that I love, but I have two that are my co-favorites. The one that would be considered a classic is The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck) and the more modern, pop culture-ish one is The Stand (Stephen King).

I read the latter many years before the former. To be honest, if I had to pick one favorite, one that I could read over and over again, it would be The Stand. (Sorry, Steinbeck.) Why that book? It’s not traditional “literary” material, i.e., the critics weren’t enamored of it. Well, screw that.

It means a lot to me because I read it in my formative years, when I was in high school, and that was during a time when I was traveling a weird, dark road. I look back at it now and I’m really not sure where that came from, but it was this strange mix of authoritarianism and rebellion, and the authoritarianism part is so far removed from who I am now that I really don’t understand what was going on in my head. Teenagers, right?

Anyway, something in that book just clicked everything into place for me. It was rebellion against authoritarianism, and finally realizing that the two were mutually exclusive meant everything to me. It was a genuine epiphany. It was the age-old question “Will you use your powers for good...or for evil?” Reading about Stu, Glen, Larry, and Ralph making their stand for good honestly changed my life. I’m not a bad seed, by any means, and my ship would have righted itself at some point anyway, but I still remember reading the book and going, “Yeah. That’s the side I want to be on. I want to fight for what is right.”

When I was thinking about these two favorite books the other day (everyone thinks about their favorite books, right?), I initially thought, “It’s weird that these two books are my favorites. They’re so different.”

Then it hit me. They really aren’t that different at all. MIND BLOWN.

That’s right! It was another epiphany! I love having those!

It made me think of the old essay question to “compare and contrast” two very different things. I always loved those exercises because I could usually come up with some pretty good arguments for both. I won’t bother much with the contrast part here, because those are pretty obvious: different time period, different circumstances, different types of people, that kind of stuff. What interests me more are the similarities. And believe me, until just the other day, this had not occurred to me.

  • They are both, at heart, apocalyptic novels. The Stand (TS) is certainly the more dystopian story, with over 99% of the world dying from a killer strain of influenza. A lot more people died in that universe. But think of the poor Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath (GoW) and every other family displaced by the Dust Bowl. Wasn’t that the end of the world—at least as they knew it—for them? When you can’t raise any crops and your family is starving, that’s pretty apocalyptic, isn’t it? So what do you do?
  • Road trip! In my world, road trips are a fun adventure, but in the worlds of TS and GoW, it is a matter of survival. In GoW, the Joads travel west, as did so many other refugees of the Dust Bowl, in order to find a better life and a way to survive. A dream of a better life. In TS, the survivors of the plague traveled west because of dreams that compelled them to find the source of those dreams. Something was drawing them both west. And along the way, what did both encounter?
  • Challenges. The road before you is not always easy. The Joads encountered hostility from people they met, the road was fraught with danger, and people were lost along the way. The survivors of TS had to scavenge for food, deal with hostile, unhinged people, and cope with the end of the world as they knew it. In the expanded version of the novel, they have to attempt an emergency appendectomy on one of their group. Can you imagine? Both the survivors and the Joads had similar experiences as they traveled west.
  • Good versus Evil. While TS treats this more literally, with a showdown between those who have aligned with the positive force in the universe (call it God, because that is what Mother Abigail believed it was) and those who threw their support to someone who is possibly Lucifer himself, the Walkin Dude, Randall Flagg, the Joads have to deal with the banality of evil, to use Hannah Arendt’s phrase. They encounter petty men who despise them for their refugee status and exploit them for cheap labor. They live in horrible conditions and there is no easy way out.
  • The triumph of Good over Evil. Although that’s a little ambiguous in both stories. The survivors of TS eventually prevail over Randall Flagg, but it’s clear that he’s not entirely gone. There is still a worrying doubt about whether anyone has learned anything from what should have been an obvious lesson. Tom Joad has his moment of righteous fury and kills a man, and he gives a stirring speech about how he’ll be there when anyone is getting screwed over. But he has to flee and leave his family, so his moment of righteousness came at great cost.

In conclusion, as in all great apocalyptic novels (or movies, or TV shows), the reader must answer the question, “What would I do in this situation? How would I handle it? Would I be on the right side or the wrong side?” Part of the appeal, at least for me, is the psychological aspect of it. How do we react when we are in dire circumstances? (It’s why “The Walking Dead” is my favorite show.)

I know that my advice would be to stick with the good. Do what you need to do in order to survive and protect your family, but you really want to be on the side of good.

Be like Tom Joad.


  1. I loved this. Having read both books, I totally agree, and never would it have occurred to me to compare the two. 👍🏼👍🏼👍🏼👍🏼

  2. I read Grapes of Wrath as a teen. It expanded my understanding of prejudice. I live in on & off dystopia with my illness so the frequent spooky extremes of King I no longer indulge in, but Steinbaeck is still a yes for me. That said, King used to rivet me to a spot at a time when life kept me going, going. I understand why you picked The Stand as Tops.

  3. So glad I read the extended version of TS recently!


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