• Melissa Olson

Paths to Deliverance, in Literature and Life


John Steinbeck, one of my favorite authors, is known for his incredible ability to illustrate the human condition. He was able to examine the deeply troubling and disturbing things that happened to people in his own time and write about them. That’s no easy feat.

In The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, Steinbeck wrote about the economic hardship, changes in the agricultural industry, and the bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers in the Midwest out of their homes in search of new lives on the west coast. It’s documented that these “immigrants” were treated harshly, as unwanted foreigners, when they finally completed their journeys. This was the reality for many families living in the “dustbowl” in the 30s, and it resonates today.

I was reminded of Steinbeck’s work when I was listening to NPR last week and the news of Aleppo. The foreign correspondent was ascertaining what could happen now that it looks like Assad has won his horrific war. The journalist asked: What will all this suffering come to? I believe we need to look for leaders who ask that question on a daily basis.

There’s a great song by Radiohead, Harry Patch (In Memory Of), written after the band members heard an interview of the last surviving British soldier to have fought in World War I. They modified Patch’s quotes and put them to song. The most chilling passage is: “Give your leaders each a gun and let them fight it out themselves.” I wish that could be the reality.

Part of my book, The Life-Dividing Days, is set in WWI. One thing that really surprised me in researching the teens and twenties was how one seemingly localized act – a Serbian nationalist killing an archduke - quickly escalated into a world war. Serbia was an area of the world many at that time likely knew little about, yet that one act resulted in the death of more than 17 million people.

My Great Uncle Olaf Olson was a gunner in WWI. He was on the front lines in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne when the war was called off. My dad always said, based on Uncle Olie’s assignment, that it was a miracle he made it home.

I knew my Uncle Olie very well. We spent a lot of time with him when I was growing up. He died at the age of 101. While he didn’t talk a lot about what he saw during the war, I vividly remember him describing a scene that haunted me. He would tell me about how, on the transport ship home, they made all the soldiers strip down and doused them with chemicals to kill the bugs they’d been infested with in the trenches. He said it scorched their skin. I envisioned this happening to the fragile, elderly man I knew because I had trouble imagining him young.

To honor my Uncle Olie, I researched what a typical training and battle route for a Michigan soldier would have looked like. One of my main characters, Johnny, is first sent for training in Battle Creek and then Waco, Texas before being shipped out from the east coast. Johnny’s journey in Europe traced the one taken by Michigan’s Red Arrow Division from the time they landed to the battle I knew my Uncle Olie had fought in. The soldiers were exposed to unspeakable new horrors created by the industrial age, like poison gasses, barbed wire, and machine guns.

The “Roaring Twenties” is often thought of as this fun, wild time. My grandma (whom Kari is based on in The Life-Dividing Days) and Aunt Helen (Cora in my novel) looked very much like flappers in old photographs I’ve seen. It dawned on me that the “Roaring Twenties” came about not only because of a generational revolt, but more so because the generation that lost so many of its own in and after WWI needed that escapism. They weren’t simply partiers, they were traumatized and trying to forget the ugliness and uncertainty of their time.

I think we are facing an uncertainty of our own. There’s a Native American passage that dictates their leaders look 13 generations ahead in every decision they make. I worry many of our leaders aren’t capable of even looking past themselves. The NPR piece also left me wondering who will write our stories - of Aleppo, the Dakota pipeline, the 2016 election, and of the divisiveness in our country. What will our grandchildren say about our time?

The title of Steinbeck’s book was taken from a passage of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic"

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on. - "

Ultimately, what Steinbeck was getting at in The Grapes of Wrath was that from oppression will come a terrible wrath, but also the deliverance of workers through their cooperation. (Wikipedia)

There are so many people in our country who are struggling, who have lost jobs and worry about being able to feed their families. There are families fleeing war-torn countries to the US and other areas across the globe. There are so many facing oppression at a level I can’t fathom.

Yet, like Steinbeck, I’m clinging to the hope that we can come together, that we can find common ground and a path to deliverance.

#WWI #creating #Steinbeck #TimeMagazine #economichardship #literature #Radiohead

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