Three Novels That Shaped My Politics

A great novel changes the way readers see the world. When pressed to name my favorite books, I can rattle off ten or twelve pretty quickly. These particular three helped mold both the way I look at controversial issues and the way I vote.

“The Grapes of Wrath.” I read John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel when I was in high school. I suffered alongside the Joad family as the dust bowl drove them from their Oklahoma home and forced them to travel, along with thousands of other impoverished migrant families, to California. I re-read the book again a few years ago and found it even more haunting. And honest.

If you’ve never been homeless or hungry or hopeless about finding work, you owe it to yourself to revisit this novel. And to heed its words of wisdom: “Pray to God that someday kind people won’t all be poor.” “If a man needs a million acres to make him feel rich, he must feel awful poor inside himself.”  “In the eyes of the hungry…the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy for the vintage.”

“The Green Mile.” Stephen King’s 1996 novel is even better than the movie. Its protagonist is Paul Edgecombe, death row supervisor at Louisiana’s Cold Mountain Penitentiary in the 1930s. In addition to Paul’s other loathsome duties, he must arrange for the execution of John Coffey, a black man with the body of a giant and the mind of a child. Coffey has been condemned to die in the electric chair for the rape and murder of nine-year-old twin girls. Though it eventually becomes evident that he’s innocent, he’s executed anyway.

About that heinous act, Edgecombe says this: “On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God and he asks me why did I kill one of his miracles, what am I gonna say? That it was my job?”

“The Cider House Rules.”  John Irving’s 1985 classic remains relevant, and controversial, today. It tells the story of Dr. Wilbur Larch, the proprietor of an orphanage in rural Maine in the 1920s. After years of taking in countless unwanted children and witnessing countless deaths from botched backstreet abortions, Dr. Larch begins performing safe, though illegal, abortions. “How do people justify such concern for the fetus and such lack of concern for unwanted and abused children?” Larch laments.

Larch’s protégé, Homer Wells—himself an unwanted orphan—is morally opposed to abortion and eventually leaves the orphanage. He goes to work in an apple orchard and is intrigued by the list of ridiculous rules posted in the cider house dormitory. When he learns that the migrant apple pickers are illiterate and can’t even read those rules, he comes to understand (thank goodness!) that rules shouldn’t be made by people who can’t possibly understand the lives of those they’re trying to control.

If you’re on the fence about poverty, capital punishment or abortion, these novels just might push you onto solid ground.

(June 30, 2019)