The story of a strike among the migratory workers in the apple orchards of California rising up "in dubious battle" against injustice.
Set in California in the 1930s, _In Dubious Battle_ accurately depicts individuals who strike when the owners of the orchard in which they pick apples decide to reduce their pay. The book documents these workers' extreme poverty and hunger, as well as their fears of bodily harm or even death at the hands vigilantes and police with whom they must contend during the strike. Their leaders, some of whom are on the extreme left political fringes, are men of fervor and dedication who are willing to sacrifice their own lives in the struggle. Steinbeck who often wrote of the sufferings of the common people, to his credit, presents a balanced portrait of these men. Bullying unarmed strikers into a fighting frenzy against men who possess deadly weapons, exploiting the martyrs in their ranks, and stealthily committing arson as methods of gaining them sympathy, were considered ethical acts that justified their worthy ends. One of the book's great strengths was its non-fictional, documentary feel. Admittedly, Steinbeck's matter of fact approach and dialogue sometimes dulled the book's dramatic impact. On the whole, though, I felt as if I were living amongst very realistic people, experiencing their disappointments fighting a dubious battle in an ultimately successful war for economic freedom of all working people.
Contrary to French's convoluted claims, the novel is first and foremost a careful study of various aspects of worker/capital confrontation, played out in the form a depression era fruit pickers' strike. Steinbeck uses his two main characters, Mac and Jim - two 'communist agitators' who are instrumental in whipping up sentiments of resistance among the workers - to offer a 'big picture' perspective of the organizational aspects of the confrontation. The bulk of the novel explores tactics, with many of the typical property owner ploys and worker counterploys represented, and it attempts to dissect and explain the vicissitudes of worker morale (and, to a lesser extent, to explore the psychology of those acting on the side of the forces of repression). The specifics may be dated, but anyone involved in social struggles today will immediately recognize most of the tactics and the psychology. I am thinking less of contemporary strikes in North America, which have generally evolved into less violent confrontations, and more of struggles where people are still fighting to gain the power of solidarity. Worker struggles in the third world come to mind, but also the larger struggle to establish unity against the neoliberal agenda. Participants in recent 'antiglobalization' protests, for instance, will see many familiar elements in "In Dubious Battle" .
French's contention that "In Dubious Battle" is a 'bildungsroman' is also pretty far off the mark. It is true that Jim, undergoing his apprenticeship as an organizer/agitator, is revealed to be a natural tactician. But generally the characters remain constants throughout the novel. I would agree with other commentators here who have complained that the personalities are somewhat stiff - ceratinly, that is, in comparison with the depth with which Steinbeck usually imbues his characters.
Steinbeck is only minimally concerned with 'character development' in this novel. He is more concerned with the ways in which broad social solidarity develops, and also with some of the concomitant tactical and moral issues. Steinbeck shows strikers resorting to violence, and yet he describes the overall situation accurately enough to make the reader fully aware that, faced with an enemy which has overwhelming control over property and legal apparatus, these are very often the only means for workers to trigger awareness of the need for larger solidarity.
French claims that the battle "is dubious not because the outcome is uncertain... but rather because it was the kind of struggle that should never have occurred at all." This, in my mind, totally misses the point. Steinbeck clearly recognizes that the battle *must* be fought for workers to improve their lot. The failure of the apple pickers' strike is certain, but just as certain is the fact that it will pull workers together in future and discourage the growers from being quite as mercilessly exploitative. The "dubious" part has to do with the means by which the battle is fought, and particularly the tendency to sacrifice individuals and small groups unscrupulously to a larger cause. Doc Burton is the only character who fully grasps the implications of this; namely, that the ultimate goal towards which Mac and the 'reds' are fighting - i.e. a classless (and non-violent) society - is undermined by the means which they are using.
For those who are new to Steinbeck and are looking primarily for a good read, I wouldn't recommend this as a starting point. "The Grapes of Wrath" offers a much more moving evocation of exploitation and discrimination. "In Dubious Battle" has its fair share of excitement, but it is a primarily a practical (and consequently more prosaic) analysis of the realities of fighting exploitation .
But it's refreshing to read the novel in light of today's capital-dominated society. While the poor get steadily poorer, and the rich richer, Steinbeck's message still resonates today. Steinbeck's characters fight barehanded against orchard monopolies and their collected police and vigilante forces armed with guns, tear gas, and money. The Red agitators at the center of the story spark the day laborers' fear and anger and incite a strike, which brings the men together brandishing hope instead of guns. We could take a lesson from the Depression-era strikers and demand a fairer, more just society, one they so obviously failed to win for us.
Though stiff and ragged as it is, the novel also haunted me as I read it. While the conditions of oppressive capital exists now more strongly than ever, the workingman's struggle is long dead. In fact, today's average working stiff is the guy in the novel who loves his truck so much that he won't risk it in the battle for his own humanity. It's not until the truck is destroyed that he becomes truly vengeful.
So when you're blue about suburban sprawl, when you spend day after day in a cubicle working on meaningless projects, or when you watch our nation's highest offices sell to the highest bidders, pick up this book and howl.