Why Tom – us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people – we go on. – Ma Joad
When nothing will grow on your farm in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, when half your house has been bulldozed away by your landowner, when you sell as many belongings as you can, buy a car, add a makeshift trailer and pile three generations of your family inside and on top, next to mattresses, frying pans, barrels, a couple slaughtered and salted pigs and a dog, for the longest journey you’ve ever made, where do you get your strength? You get it from your family and the people around you who are struggling just like you.
The Grapes of Wrath is one of the greatest American stories of endurance ever told. It’s a fictional account of the Joad family and a real-life depiction of the western migration of about two hundred thousand displaced farm workers during The Great Depression, people who left their homes in Oklahoma and the surrounding states with the promise of work and a better life in California. When they reach California and discover what the real relationship is between big-time farmers and poor migrants, when they are forced to take pennies for a long day of picking peaches or cotton or grapes, when they earn barely enough to feed their families, even when they live in tents and shacks and railroad cars and are nearly starving, they don’t give up.
Maybe you’ve never read The Grapes of Wrath. There’s so much information and analysis about this great classic, I don’t think I can come close to offering anything new. So I’m just going to tell you what I like about the story.
- The characters are terrific. Some are strong, some are weak, but they face their ordeal with surprising optimism, even when there is little hope.
- My favorite is Ma. She isn’t afraid to assert herself and her quick thinking gets the family out of more than a few tough situations. She talks plain, but she’s smart and insightful. When Pa complains that Ma is telling him what to do, he suggests that “it’s purty near time to get out a stick.” Ma stands up to him. “You get your stick, Pa. Times when they’s food an’ a place to set, then maybe you can use your stick an’ keep your skin whole…But you jus’ get you a stick now an’ you ain’t lickin’ no woman; you’re a fightin’, cause I got a stick all laid out too.” She makes crucial decisions by instinct. She understands people and has a vision of what things can be like if everyone pulls together. She accepts everyone’s weaknesses and sees how they can contribute.
- Jim Casy, the preacher, is another character with depth and vision. He’s humble and he understands his sins. The fact that he questions his ability to preach makes his ideas all the more powerful. He seems to have it right when he says, “I got thinkin’ how we was holy when we was one thing, an’ mankin’ was holy when it was one thing. An’ it on’y got unholy when one mis’able little fella got the bit in his teeth an’ run off his own way, kickin’ and draggin’ an’ fightin’. Fella like that bust the holiness.”
- I like how the family forgives each other for their weaknesses. They don’t dwell on them. Tom Joad has served his time for murder and the family accepts him. They understand when Noah goes off. When Al goes out “tomcatting,” they accept this as inevitable. Instead, they see how great he is with the car and they give him confidence. They tolerate Uncle John’s occasional drunkenness. They understand that’s the only way he can cope with his own sorrow. They accept Rosasharn’s preoccupation with her pregnancy, Granma’s and Grandpa’s craziness. They know that they can’t change some things. They focus instead on getting to California.
- When tragedy strikes again and again, they deal with it. They don’t feel sorry for themselves. They aren’t passive. They defend themselves if they have to. They try to do things right, but they don’t feel guilty about things when they cut corners or break some rules. And they aren’t afraid. When the service station boy tells Tom he has nerve for crossing the California desert in the night, Tom answers plainly, “It don’t take no nerve to do somepin when there ain’t nothin’ else you can do.”
- They are generous. Even when they have nothing, they offer to help their neighbors. And their neighbors help in return. They have their community of family and shantytown neighbors.
When The Grapes of Wrath was published, Steinbeck said, “I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” He put heart and soul into expressing his outrage over the treatment of these poor migrant farm workers and he did it with vivid descriptions and powerful characters.
Did you read The Grapes of Wrath in high school or college? Have you read it more than once? This is my third time and I give it five bookmarks for its lasting story and important message.
Thanks for visiting – come back soon!