This is one of those books I’ve wanted to read for years. It gets on high school reading lists, but we instead opted for Huckleberry Finn and (regrettably) The Scarlet Letter. Steinbeck’s tale of the Joad family’s migration to California puts in perspective much of our modern life. For those who think the current Great Recession is worse than the Great Depression need to read this book. In Steinbeck’s California, Americans were treated far worse than Mexican migrants here illegally are treated today, and by the very same people. Large farms in Southern California lured Okies, displaced by the Dust Bowl in the Midwest, to California not to give them a better life, but to drive labor prices down to starvation wages.
The Joads are a family who lose their farm when the companies that bought out all the land decide it’s cheaper to hire a man on a tractor to farm large swaths of land instead of allowing tenants (the former owners) to continue. The Joads, including Tom, recently released from prison, see only one way out. They have a flyer promising work in California. Saving up what little money they have, they buy and convert an old Hudson into a truck, load up all their belongings, and head west.
The trip is arduous. They are stopped by cops at the borders of Arizona and California. Grandpa and Grandma die. At one point, Tom and little brother Al replace a loose connecting rod in another car’s motor – something we simply assume today is a signal to scrap a car. There are no motels along the way. The Joads have to camp.
When they arrive, the wages are poor, and when they aren’t living in refugee camps, they live in Hoovervilles. By the end of the story, Tom, former preacher Casy, Grandpa, Grandma, and son-in-law Connie are gone – either left or, in the case of the grandparents and Casy, dead.
Perhaps the most poignant of how dire the situation is the scene near the end of the book where Rose, who recently miscarried, breast feeds a man dying of starvation while the family huddles in a barn during a flood.
Reading The Grapes of Wrath puts our current situation in perspective. These days, we have unemployment to cover the loss of a job. Wages are regulated to some degree, and we take for granted that a clunker that clunk’s too much goes straight to the scrapyard. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be concerned, but if you want to see how bad things could have been, this book spells it out, all without getting on a soapbox. The Californians are scared of all these newcomers and scared when they push back wanting a decent wage. The Okies are desperate, just looking for a way to survive. It’s a witchy time with the faint rumble of World War II looming over the horizon.
Steinbeck seems to think that, had World War II not ended the Depression, we might have been headed for a revolution. When people get desperate just to survive, it’s a strong possibility.