The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939). 559 pages, Easton Press.

When I was a child, whenever we would go on a long road trip, my mother would look at our packed-to-the-gills station wagon and sarcastically say, “Well, here come the Joads”. And Dad would laugh loudly, and off we’d go.

Somewhere around the time I was 7 or 8 years old I asked Mom what “The Joads” were. She said that “The Joads” were people who drove around looking for work, and they packed all of their belongings as well as their entire family on the back of their car wherever they went. She said it was a common phrase when she was growing up, and that her mother and father used to say it all the time.

However, she did not mention that it came from a book (or movie). So, for many years I thought “The Joads” were some ethnic group, like “The Jews” or “The Italians”. Ours being a military family, I knew it was not polite to poke into someone’s ethnic background (racism is an absolute no-no in the military world), so I didn’t ask any further questions.

As time went by, I started using the phrase as well. When we would pack up our station wagon (or later, our VW bus), I would say, “OK, here come the Joads!” and people would laugh. I began to build up a picture in my head of what a “Joad” must be. I pictured them as looking somewhat like gypsies, but perhaps wearing turbans or headscarves. I imagined a swarm of Joads streaming across the desert in their loaded-down station wagons, looking for work in every oasis they came across.

It was not until my senior year of high school that I finally learned what “The Joads” really were. My english teacher, Mr. Blair, had us read a book every two weeks. He had a list of about 500 books we could choose from, with a brief synopsis of the plot under each title. And there it was, staring at me on the purple mimeographed page: “The Grapes of Wrath: The depression-era story of the Joad family, forced to leave their Oklahoma farm and become migrant workers”.

I distinctly recall blushing as I read the synopsis. So they were not an ethnic group after all…

When my mom got home from work that day, I casually asked her if “The Joads” were from The Grapes of Wrath. She gave me a funny look. “Well, where else would they be from?” she said. “The book, and the movie with Henry Fonda“. And so I finally understood that my image of the massive caravan of swarthy Joads motoring across the world’s deserts was not only amazingly wrong, but that the entire “Joad” business was based on a popular book and movie.

It was on of those times (of which there have been many and will no doubt be many more) in my life where I suddenly realized there was a great deal of information that I did not posses.

I never got around to reading the book that year, and as time went on, I forgot about it. Occasionally the topic would come up whenever I’d participate in helping someone move, but that was about it.

Until a few weeks ago, when I got laid off from my job of the last five years. In a melancholy mood a few days after I’d gotten the ax, I read an article that suggested that if you think you’re hurting in this recession, try reading The Grapes of Wrath to put things in their proper perspective.

Just a few months earlier, I had received a wonderful leather-bound copy of The Grapes of Wrath as part of my Easton Press book subscription. I got it out of my library and started reading it. And let me tell you… it certainly does put things in perspective.

The book is told mainly from the point of view of 27-year-old Tom Joad, who has just been released from prison, having served four years for manslaughter. As Tom makes his way across Oklahoma circa 1938 to return to his family on their sharecropped farm, he runs into Casy, an ex-preacher that he remembers from his childhood. Casy joins Tom, since he remembers the Joad family and would like to say hello as well. But when they arrive at the Joad home, it’s abandoned. One corner of the house is smashed in, and the entire grounds of the farm have been tractor-graded away to merge with the surrounding farms into one giant field.

Tom finds out that “The Bank” has taken possession of all the farms in the area, kicked out their tenants, and merged them into one mega-farm tilled by a single man on a tractor. It seems that while he was away in prison, the combination of a months-long dust storm and the long arm of the Depression have destroyed the hundred-year-old job of sharecropped tenant farming.

Tom finds the rest of his family – Ma, Pa (who is also named Tom Joad), Grandpa, Grandma, his Uncle John, his siblings Noah, Rose of Sharon (or “Rosasharn”, as she is called by most), Al, Ruthie, and Winfield – all crammed into Uncle John’s tiny one-room cabin. And Uncle John himself is being evicted that week as well. With nowhere to live, no job prospects of any kind, and many hungry mouths to feed, the family pools all their money, sells most of their possessions, and loads every family member and every remaining possession onto a single broken-down farm truck. And begins the long journey to California, where, according to a series of handbills being passed around Oklahoma, there is plenty of year-round work at high wages on the many fruit farms in that region.

Of course, the family learns the harsh truth as their journey engages and their money dwindles. One by one, family members and friends die, are arrested and jailed, or simply run off for the hope of something better. The family stays in a series of “Hoovervilles“, government camps, and abandoned boxcars as they work picking fruit or cotton for a few dollars a day. During the course of the novel, everything that is bad and brutal about people being forced to work for starvation wages (and less) is made painfully clear.

The book is shockingly frank for something written in 1939. It’s filled with casual profanity, mocking dismissals of religion, open discussion of sex and pregnancy, and brutal in its depiction of violence, murder and death. One character dies by having his head smashed in by a strikebreaker. Another has a stillborn baby, whose blue, mummy-like corpse is tossed into a flooding river. And at the end of the novel, a starving man is saved from death by being fed the only food anyone in the group has – milk from the breast of a new mother.

The Grapes of Wrath is a “can’t put it down” kind of book. The prose is vivid and rythmic, the dialogue compelling. Every single character in this book is fully realized, as clear as if they were actually standing right in front of you. It’s heartbreaking, it’s realistic, it’s…. well, amazing, actually. I have no trouble at all seeing why this was a runaway bestseller as soon as it was published, and why it was turned into a movie only one year after the book came out. This ranks right up there with the absolute classics of the 20th century.

I wasn’t prepared for how engaging this book would be. I read a hundred pages in one sitting, without getting up – it’s that engrossing. You just have to read a little more, to see what happens next. And oh, for God’s sake, can’t something good happen to these poor folks? Man oh man.

And yes, as I said above, it does put things in perspective. I’m sitting here writing this in my big house, living off my generous severance pay while I work on starting up my own business. Oh, yeah, poor, poor me.

I’ll still probably say “Here come the Joads!” whenever I overload a car for a long trip. But… after reading The Grapes of Wrath, I will never make fun of any hard-working person driving around in a vehicle trying to make an honest buck. Or make foolish statements about how out of work people “deserve” what they get. Or pretend that the lose of a job when you’ve got a family to feed is just “unfortunate”.

Yeah, times are relatively tough. But I think we could all use a little bit of the spirit of Ma Joad. Hitch up your skirts, wash your hands, and git to doin’ what needs doin’.

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