Steinbeck was a genius at the tiny book, and there is more action in this last section than in the entire rest of the book combined. And having read most of the rest of Steinbeck's canon, it's easy to say that he could have fit in enough heart-breaking back story about the Joads and Casey in a few sentences, without all the Turtle/Agricultural Progress is Evil/Here is How All Poor People Act In Every Situation At All Times chapters. You know, the ones that contribute nothing except for acting like a leftist version of John Galt's speech. I'm not the sort of reader who bemoans a chunky book just because it's chunky- I think every word of Anna Karenina is necessary- but I could've easily done without the first 3/4 of Grapes of Wrath.
Another benefit of making the book a novella would be that Steinbeck would have less space to write cartoon characters. You know- Big, Bad Policeman (all of them), and Big, Bad Employer/Exploiter of the Poor (all of them), and Poor Traveling Folk From All Over The Middle Of The Country Who For Some Reason All Speak In The Same Oklahoma Dialect (another blogger pointed this out a few weeks ago and now I can't stop thinking about it) And Are All Very Nice To The Other Poor People.
So let's talk about the ending. I think it's largely regarded as ridiculous for a reason, but I don't think the reason is the shock of what Rose of Sharon is actually doing. I think the reason is that the Rose of Sharon we've been with for so long would never do something like that. Steinbeck gives us 400 pages of a selfish, whiny, self-centered brat, and then expects us to believe that she would do something so selfless and abnormal because- what? Her baby died? If she were true to type, that would make her MORE self-pitying and self-righteous- every other tragedy up to this point has done so. I think Ma would've looked deep into her eyes, and Rose of Sharon would've burst into tears and complained about how she was hungry, too, after all she's the one who just did all that labor and has nothing to show for it.
So, the book is preachy to a major fault (even though I agree with a lot of what Steinbeck is saying). The characters, with the exception of a few of the family members (MA, HOW I LOVE YOU) are wooden and two-dimensional. I know this book is beloved by many people because it makes you FEEL THE FEELINGS and HUMAN DIGNITY and hey, I get it. I don't think this is the most successful of Steinbeck's works, but it's a SUPER-SUCCESSFUL work of socialist propaganda (I don't mean that snottily, I think that is literally what it is) and definitely worth the read. I would force it on all the Republicans on the whole wide world if given the chance.