The book was banned soon after its release because Steinbeck criticizes society in it. The story is set in the 30s and describes the time we now know as the Great Depression. After several years of drought and resulting dust storms, the farmers of Oklahoma suffered of great damage. Combined with the fast mechanization of farm equipment and the rise of capitalism, many farmers were forced to leave their farm and home. Tens of thousands people went on the road, heading to California, a state that was like a promised land for them. It is described how the situation was misused by, for example, car sellers: people were in desperate need of a vehicle, and thus seller could ask any price. The same thing for buyers of used goods: migrating people needed to sell their household, and thus buyers bid low prices. It is empathized very sharply that 'no one can be blamed. It is the bank, the society that forces us to do what we do.' It's confronting to see how people created their own hell - a situation that can't be made undone.
The book follows the Joad family on the road to California. Each character is unique and incredibly well worked out. They all have their background they carry with them - uncle John, for example, is haunted by his bad conscience and constantly believes he is sinning. Their development throughout the journey is beautiful, interesting, very credible and sad to witness. I especially was amazed by Ma Joad, who transforms into a strong, independent woman who takes the lead when the men aren't able to do so.
When they approach California, they hear negative stories already. And though the Joads keep hoping they will be lucky, the stories prove to be true. There are so many people on the road in search for jobs, the farmers can pay any price. They perfectly know people are starving and ready to work for any price, only to earn some bread for the night. Migrants, who are disrespectfully called 'Okies', are put into camps, and the police tortures them. The Californian authorities are afraid the immigrants will gather and start a revolt, and therefore they do everything to prevent that. Every now and then, they burn the camps down to force the people to move forward again.
Steinbeck proposes socialist thoughts, and was accused of communism propaganda. It isn't communism he is proposing, though, since he does not only suggest that people work for the whole, but also keep their individuality and personal freedom. He mainly criticizes the institution of very rich companies that own much property, making it impossible for mid-sized or small farmers or businesses to exist.
The writing is genius - the dialogues are realistic (I love the Oklahoma accent), descriptions are vivid, the pace of the story is perfect. I very much enjoyed the intersecting chapters not focusing on the Joads, but describing the overall situation in the US at that time. Somehow they even were more tragic although or because it was told from a greater distance.
I was already crying even before I knew what the ending would be, just because it was clear it couldn't turn all good in the remaining three pages. In fact the ending is open, but I think I can guess where it will lead to - the Joad family will further fall apart, some will die of hunger, some will leave. But Ma Joad will never stop fighting.