Type of Work:
Social / political criticism
Oklahoma and California; 1930s
Tod Joad, a recent parolee in his mid-twenties
Ma and Pa Joad, a strong, middle-aged Oklahoma couple
Noah Joad, their strange eldest son
Al, their wild sixteen-year-old
Rose of Sharon, eldest Joad daughter, married and pregnant
Gramma and Grampa Joad, an earthy old couple
Jim Casy, a preacher and, later, a labor agitator
Other Joad children
As Tom Joad hitchhiked his way home after a four-year stay in prison for killing a man in a fight, he met up with Jim Casy, a former preacher who was returning from a sojourn in the “wilderness,” where he had been soul-searching. Tom invited Jim to walk with him on the dusty road to the Joad family farm, and to stay for dinner. Arriving there, he saw that “the small unpainted house was mashed at one corner, and it had been pushed off its foundations so that it slumped at an angle.” The farm was deserted. Muley Graves, a near-by tenant farmer, told Tom that his family had moved to their Uncle john’s house: ” . . . They was going to stick it out when the bank come to tractorin’ off the place.” A long drought was making barren ground out of what had once been fertile farmland.
Early the following morning Tom and Casy walked the eight miles to Uncle John’s farm. As they approached, Tom saw his Pa working on a truck in the yard. Pa’s “eyes looked at Tom’s face, and then gradually his brain became aware of what he saw.” With Tom’s homecoming, the Joad family unit was complete. Now Ma and Pa, the pregnant oldest daughter Rose of Sharon, and her husband Connie, Grampa, Gramma, and all the rest started packing: they were all “goin’ to California” to start over as fruit pickers. Like thousands of other displaced tenant farmers, the Joads, spurred on by the promise of good wages and sunshine, sold what they could, bought a used car and headed out on Highway 66, “a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership.”
After the supplies and tools were loaded into the old Hudson, which teen-aged Al load had converted into a truck, the Joad family and Casy (twelve people in all) squeezed into what little space was left and started west.
Soon the loads met up with the Wilsons, a married couple with a broken-down car. After Al had fixed the vehicle, Ma and Pa joad invited the Wilsons to travel with them. “You won’t be no burden. Each’Il help each, an’ we’ll all git to California,” Ma said.
The two groups “crawled westward as a unit”, suffering along the way from too little money, not enough food, dilapidated vehicles, profiteering junk dealers and overpriced replacement parts. Eastward-bound migrants warned the travelers that working conditions in California were bad; but they still pressed on toward the “promised land.”
Crossing the border into California, the family camped next to a river that ran parallel to the town of Needles. They’d wait until nightfall to cross the desert. As Tom, Noah and Pa sat down in the shallow river water to wash off the road grime, they were joined by an itinerant father and his son who aprised them of the treatment they could expect in California: “Okie use’ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you’re a dirty sonof-a-bitch. Okie means you’re scum.”
Later that day, Tom’s aloof and backward brother Noah notified him that he was staying to live by the river, and then wandered away. That evening, after saying good-bye to the Wilsons, the Joads began the last leg of their journey. Early during the desert crossing, Gramma quietly died, but Ma waited until they reached Bakersfield before she told anyone. After another roadside burial, the family drove on into a “Hooverville” – one of many designated migrant camps opened during the Depression. Like other Hoovervilles, it was a haotic community; “little gray tents, shacks, and c cars were scattered about at random.” But the Joads elected to stay.
On their first evening in the camp, two men in a shiny sedan drove up, a labor contractor and a local sheriff. The contractor had come out to offer jobs to the migrants, but when he declined to reveal the actual wage he was prepared to pay, a fight ensued. Tom and Casy got in the middle of things and managed to knock the sheriff out cold. since Tom was on parole and couldn’t afford any more trouble, Casy ordered him to hide while he stayed behind to give himself up in Tom’s place.
That night, before the family drove away, 1″ose of Sharon’s husband sneaked off, abandoning his wife and soon-to-be-born child. From the Hooverville, sounds of shouts and screams could be heard as the clattering old Hudson crept away in the night.
The loads headed south toward Weedpatch, where they had heard a government camp was located. Once there, they were immediately struck by how different this camp was from the Hooverville. Clean showers with hot water greeted them; indoor toilets, and the best Saturday night dances in the county. The camp’s inhabitants had the right to make their own rules and elect their own leaders. Unfortunately, though, there was no work in any of the surrounding areas. The children began having dizzy spells from hunger, and with Rose of Sharon near to giving birth, they had to make a decision: they left the camp on their last tank of gas.
As the worn-out vehicle beaded north, the loads met a man who pointed them to possible work on the Hooper ranch near Pixley. When they finally reached the ranch, however, they found themselves in the middle of a heated dispute. A row of policemen held back picketing strikers, who shouted and cursed at the “scab” peach pickers crossing their lines. But the Joads didn’t care they were hungry. Everyone except Ma and Rose of Sharon, who stayed behind to clean their filthy new home, straightway went to work. Before nightfall, the men and children had earned one dollar among them, and Ma took their note of credit to the company store, where she was able to buy a little hamburger, bread, potatoes and coffee’ After eating his scanty dinner, Tom ambled down through the brush along the highway to investigate what all the commotion was about. He came upon a tent. To his surprise, he discovered that Casy the preacher was one of the main agitators. Casy gave Tom the lowdown: “We come to work there. They says it’s gonna be fi’ cents …. We got there an’they says they’re payin’two an’a half cents …. Now they’re payin’you five. When they bust this here strike – ya think they’ll pay you five?”
Tom was about to return to the ranch when suddenly he beard “guys comin’ from ever’ which way.” Everyone scattered for cover, but Tom and Casy were intercepted by two deputies. “You fel]as don’know what you’re doin’,” protested Casy. “You’re helpin’to starve kids.” The nearest deputy snatched up a pick handle and cracked Casy’s skull, killing him. in a fit of passion, Tom wrenched the club free and clubbed the deputy to the ground. As he bolted from the confusion, he received a deep gash on his face but managed to make it back to the ranch, where he hid out. As the family worked on, the strike was broken, and just as Casy had predicted, the pay for peaches dropped to two-and-a-half cents a box.
Soon, all the peaches were picked, and once again the loads set out. Luckily, they happened on some work picking cotton. While they camped with other migrants in abandoned boxcars along a stream, Tom, still hunted by the law, stayed a few miles down the road in a clump of trees. At last the joads were making enough money to eat properly.
Then the littlest girl, Ruthie, made a mistake: during a fight with another girl, she threatened to get her big brother, who had “already kil’t two fellas. . . ” That evening, Ma took Tom his dinner, told him about Ruthie’s words, slipped him seven dollars that she had saved, and urged him to leave – for his own and the family’s sake. Tom hugged Ma and promised he would carry on Casy’s work of improving the worker’s plight.
Amid heavy rains, Rose finally gave birth to a stillborn son. As the stream swelled into a thundering river, water began entering the boxcar. The soaked, frantic and fragmented family ran for higher ground. Finally sheltering in a rickety barn, they found inside a young boy tending his sickly father. “Got to have soup or milk,” he told them. “You folks got money to git milk?”
Bereft of her baby, Rose of Sharon now went to the famished man, bared her breast, and nourished him with her milk. It was all she had.
Perhaps Steinbeck’s most popular and true-to-life novel, The Grapes of Wrath exposes the grinding hardships of the “Okie” migrants. With brief yet descriptive passages moving quickly from one scene to another, he conveys a sustained air of urgency. The novel is heavy with religious symbolism: Casy offers himself to suffer for Tom’s crime, Then later dies uttering, “Father forgive them . . . “; the family meets up with fathers and sons throughout; the stillborn baby is placed in a wooden box and set adrift, Moses-like, on the river; the name “Rose of Sharon” comes from the Song of Solomon … and the list goes on and on. As a portrait of a family being destroyed by nature, mechanization, greed, and changing times, and as a sometimes sentimental yet powerful indictment of our capitalist economy, this book is a masterpiece.
However, it can be argued that even through all of the appallingly harsh events the load family endures, the book promotes optimism; a “milk-of-human-kindness” theme; a journey from “drought and despair” that ends in “water and hope.” Though capricious nature – and human nature can not always be depended upon to alleviate human misery, Rose’s act of mercy symbolizes the need for all of us to develop within ourselves a genuine responsibility and compassion for each other.