I have ancestors—my great grandmother, Alabama Gray (she preferred to be called Bonnie), in fact—who traveled from Oklahoma to California between 1910 and 1920, just before the dust bowl and depression were pushing people from the mid-west to the west in search of work. I have known this for some time now, and recently, in conducting family history work, I realized that as a young woman she worked at a cannery. The man she eventually married, Rufus Morgan January, who during his younger years traveled from Texas to California, alone, presumably, and began boarding with friends. His occupation in the 1930s is picker and cannery worker. They lived in Lindsay, Tulare, California, the very place that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) suggests there is work for the Joad family. My great grandparents were among the “Okies” that Steinbeck so realistically and sympathetically portrays in The Grapes of Wrath.
I had not made that connection until now. I was urged by my mother to read The Grapes of Wrath in seventh grade, because it never appeared in our rural curriculum. I “read” it, and I have always claimed that I had read it, but I didn’t remember a darn thing about it. Recently rereading it makes me feel guilty for ever having claimed that I’d read it and for not knowing how intricately the book ties into my own roots. I am also a little shocked that my mother would have encouraged me to read it at that young age, given the enormous amount of swearing (especially the Lord’s name in vain) and some of the adult content and issues. However, I now appreciate the book. I understand the historical accuracy and the importance of drawing real characters, something Steinbeck never disappoints me with. (See my post on his book Pastures in Heaven.)
My favorite sections of the book, prose-wise, are the interludes that attempt to describe the overarching or nameless faces of that time in the United States. There are car salesmen, gas station owners, and the land, all speaking from a place of realism and pain and self-interest. The book gets at that self-interest, especially when the Joad family arrives in California, a place they have built up in their minds to be paradisiacal, and discover they are not wanted, they are hated, there is no work, and that there are already too many Okies competing for food, work, water, shelter, and peace. It highlights the tragedy of that age, the desperation of poverty, and the ugliness of human nature. The sheriffs and residents would drive the travelers as if they were cattle or vermin. They would kill and attack with no provocation other than prejudice and hate. I think we see similar sentiments today, and in every era, when people who are different from us come looking for the same opportunities and privileges we have.
I can’t help but be drawn to Casey, the preacher. He’s an admitted sinner and a quitter when it comes to preaching, but he is also a heroic figure who ends up becoming a sacrificial lamb for the cause of the families looking for work and relief. He protects Tom from the law, going to jail for the crime. He pays for Tom’s deed. He gets out of jail, claims that he finally “sees,” and works to lead a union fight against unfair wages. He says he has a knowledge of what is really important and he fights for that. He dies for it. He’s truly heroic, in the traditional sense of the word. (See my post on Harry Potter for more about the hero cycle).
I couldn’t help crying when Ma feeds the starving children in one of the camps. She has their last stew, only enough for the large “fambly,” but she encourages the children to get flat sticks and scrape out the pot once she has served her people. She cannot watch them suffer and she cannot keep it from them. One of the mothers is angry about the charity, but Ma explains that she just couldn’t stand there and do nothing and watch them watch her. She knew they were starving.
Tom is also an interesting figure. One of my favorite scenes is near the beginning when he gets out of jail for murder and has a tense conversation with a trucker who gives him a lift. It captured my attention and made me care about the rest of the book and the rest of the family. Tom throughout is seemingly calm and carefree, but he has a violent streak that constantly leads to trouble. He cannot control that part of himself, and in the end, with Casey’s sacrifice, he too “sees” and decides to try to make better and do better for the people. He becomes a leader.
The end of the book is what is most powerful, shocking, and poignant. Rose of Sharon, the pregnant and abandoned-by-her-husband daughter of the Joads, gives birth to a stillborn. She has been worried throughout the pregnancy because of their hard travel, their lack of fresh food and milk, and the words of a crazy woman who tells her that she’s in trouble and the baby will be cursed for sin. Rose of Sharon is fragile and ill. She just wants milk during her pregnancy to make her unborn baby strong, but it is not to be. The baby is born dead.
The baby is born in a downpour, and her parents must leave all of their possessions and their vehicle stuck in the mud to find shelter. They take Rose of Sharon and find a little shack. In that shack, a man is dying, and his young son is scared and alone. He explains that his father is starving to death, after having given him most of the food over the last week. Rose of Sharon, scared wet, alone, in shock, grieving the loss of her baby, and still in want of milk, offers her breast to the dying, starving man. She feeds him with the milk she has produced for her child, but that she cannot use herself.
This scene echoes the idea throughout the book, that the poor are more generous than the rich. Many times the family receives kindness from other starving, struggling families or the poor men who work for the rich men. The poor take care of each other, yet they have, seemingly, nothing to give. This theme is instructive for many reasons, but for me, it causes me to ask, “What do I have to give?” Compared to most of the world, I have much and I am rich. I do not consider myself to be rich, not in an extravagant way. Although I sometimes feel I have nothing to give, this book proves otherwise. There is always something to give, and the poor sometimes know what that is more than those of us who have so much we have a hard time letting go of any of it.
Here are some of my favorite quotes:
“I’m just pain covered with skin.”
“A fellow builds up his own sins right up from the ground.”
“There’s a woman so great with love she scares me.”
There is so much more to this book. I could mention the grandparents, who both die on the trip, and Ma’s sitting with “Granma” all night while she died and then sitting with the dead body until they can cross into California without telling anybody. I can mention the two children, Ruthie and Winfield, who are excited over the possibility of having a single box of Cracker Jack toward the end of the trip once the family has work. I can mention the children’s surprise over flushing toilets at the government camp and their worry that they had broken them. I can describe the delicious shower Ma took for the first time in months at that camp. I can describe Al’s conversation working on a car with a neighboring family. All of it is beautiful, in a gritty, shocking, and sand-papery way.
Steinbeck captures poverty, history, and continuing American sentiments in this novel. I now know why my mother urged me to read it and why it is required reading in many classrooms. I know why it is an American classic and one of the most famous of Steinbeck’s books. (It did win the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.) I also know why it is number 28 on the BBC book list, and I am glad it is. I would not have revisited it otherwise. I would have continued to claim that I had read it and been completely ignorant of its lessons, its significance, and its connection to my heritage and family. The Grapes of Wrath is about me, my people, and America. It is about all of us.