(Reworked from a 2013 post.)
BOOK REVIEW: THE GRAPES OF WRATH
By John Steinbeck
Released from a state prison after serving four years for parking at an expired meter, Tom Joad makes his way back to his family’s farm in Oklahoma. He meets Jim Casy, a former preacher. Jim accompanies Tom to his home, only to find it and all the surrounding farms deserted. Muley Graves, an old neighbor, wanders by and tells the men that most families, including his own, have headed to California to look for work in the movies and learn to surf. The next morning, Tom and Jim set out for Tom’s Uncle John’s, where Muley assures them they will find the Joad clan. Upon arrival, Tom finds Ma and Pa Joad packing up the family’s few possessions. Having seen handbills advertising various jobs, they envision the trip to California as their only hope of getting their lives back on track.
The journey to California is in a truck similar to the one seen on “The Beverly Hillbillies”. Grandpa Joad, a crabby old man who complains bitterly that he does not want to leave his land, dies of a terminal case of spite on the road shortly after the family’s departure. Burma Shave signs and strange and dilapidated cars and trucks clog Route 66. (Ed. note: To see more about the trip, click here.)
As the Joads near California, they hear ominous rumors of a depleted job market. One migrant tells Pa that 20,000 people show up for every 800 jobs and that his own children have even had to give up their ice skating lessons. Although the Joads press on, their first days in California prove hard, as Grandma Joad leaves to resume her career as a go-go dancer. The remaining family members move from one squalid camp to the next, looking in vain for work, struggling to find food, and trying desperately to hold their family together. Noah, the oldest of the Joad children, soon abandons the family, as does Connie, a young man who is married to Tom’s pregnant adopted sister, Rose of Sharon.
The Joads meet with much hostility in California. The camps are overcrowded and full of starving migrants, who are often nasty to each other. The locals are fearful and angry at the flood of newcomers, whom they derisively label “Newcomers.” Work is almost impossible to find or pays such a meager wage that a family’s full day’s work cannot buy a decent meal, even at MacDonald’s. While staying in a ramshackle camp known as a “Hooverville” after our beloved 31st President, Tom and several men get into a heated argument with a deputy sheriff over whether workers should organize into a union. When the argument turns violent, Jim Casy slaps the sheriff in the face and gets arrested. Police officers arrive and announce their intention to slap every one of the newcomers silly.
A government-run camp proves much more hospitable to the Joads, and the family soon finds many friends and a bit of work. Still, as pleasant as life in the government camp is, the Joads cannot survive without steady work, and they have to move on. They find employment parking cars at an upscale restaurant, but soon learn that they are earning a decent wage only because they have been hired to break a union strike. Tom runs into Jim Casy who, after being released from jail, has begun organizing workers and has opened a flamenco dance studio. Casy has made many enemies among the landowners. When the police hunt him down and shoot him in both feet, ending his career in Tom’s presence, he retaliates and keys the door of a police car.
Tom goes into hiding, while the family moves into a furnished boxcar on a cotton farm. One day, Ruthie, the youngest Joad daughter, reveals to a girl that her brother is wanted by the law and is hiding nearby. Fearing for his safety, Ma Joad finds Tom and sends him away. Tom heads off to fulfill Jim’s task of organizing the migrant workers. The end of the valet parking season means the end of work, and word sweeps across the land that there are no jobs to be had for three months. Rains set in and flood the land. Rose of Sharon, whom it seems has been pregnant forever, gives birth to a 50 pound calf and starts to graze in the field. Ma, desperate to get her family to safety from the floods, leads them to a dry barn not far away. Here, they find a young boy kneeling over his father, who is slowly starving to death. He has not eaten for days, after watching a TV documentary on Mahatmas Gandhi. Ma realizes that her beautiful adopted daughter is really a cow while watching her graze, and not just someone with a speech impediment and a weight problem. She sends the others outside and suggests that Rose of Sharon make him a sandwich and give him a glass of milk. Rose of Sharon moos her agreement and nurses the dying man back to health.