Grapes of Wrath: How Dust Bowl Affected On People
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Grapes of Wrath is a novel set in the time of the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s. It tells a story of a family from Oklahoma who had lost their farm, as so many did during this time. The Dust Bowl, was caused by many factors including; drought, high winds, and unsustainable farming practices. During this novel we see a family’s journey as they travel from their home farm to California in search of a new start, work, and other agricultural opportunities. The Grapes of Wrath describe the struggles of labor workers in this era of new industrialization.
This story starts in Oklahoma, we are introduced to our first character Tom Joad, who had just gotten out of prison and put on parole. Tom hitches a ride and then walks back towards his home. On the way, he runs into the town’s preacher, Jim Casy, who has since retired from preaching. They walk back to where Tom grew up, only to find that most of the farm homes in the area had been abandoned. Tom’s home was abandoned and collapsing. At this point, Tom and Casy met one of Tom’s old neighbors, Muley Graves. He informed them that since Tom had been away, the land has dried up and has stopped producing. The cotton crop had sucked the land dry of nutrients, the drought has dried the soil, and the winds pick it up and take it away. The farmers did not practice crop rotation and also did not plant cover crops to hold the soil down. This is was a very hard way to learn a lesson in agriculture. A lesson nonetheless. The storm left most families with no work, as most were agricultural workers. This forced families into taking out loans from the bank, loans they could not pay back. So the banks took their homes. Muley’s family had left for California after the bank had evicted them, but Muley was too stubborn to leave. He stayed in town and camped where he could, catching and killing rodents for food, which he shared with Tom and Jim this night. This begins the emerging theme of kindness in community, which is expressed throughout the book. The neighbor described how representatives from the bank would come by and tell the families they had to leave their home. The frustration of the home owners grew. How could this land be taken from them? What are they to do for their families? What kind of man would put this hardship on hard working people? But the bank is not a man. Only a greedy corporation, as described:
”And now the owner men grew angry. You’ll have to go. But it’s ours, the tenant men cried. WeNo. The bank, the monster owns it. You’ll have to go. We’ll get our guns, like Grampa when the Indians came. What then? Well—first the sheriff, and then the troops. You’ll be stealing if you try to stay, you’ll be murderers if you kill to stay. The monster isn’t men, but it can make men do what it wants. But if we go, where’ll we go? How’ll we go? We got no money. We’re sorry, said the owner men. The bank, the fifty-thousand-acre owner can’t be responsible. You’re on land that isn’t yours. Once over the line maybe you can pick cotton in the fall.” (Ch5)
This is our first example of a transition in the job market. Corporations are growing and they do not plan on stopping. They are also very detached from their customers. You will never meet the person who owns the bank and therefor your complaints and concerns mean little to nothing. We can all relate to this level of impersonalism with our large banks and grocery stores. Inhumanity is a major theme in The Grapes of Wrath. This example continues when we find out the men who worked for the bank were paid well to do this dirty work. One man said he was paid three dollars a day to take a tractor to the confiscated land. Although he felt bad about being part of kicking families out on the street, he could not turn down a job that paid so well. He had kids of his own to feed. The large corporation takes advantage of their socioeconomic status. Knowing they have limited choices for work now that the land is trash, these people become slaves to the company. These large banks are pushing people of lower socioeconomic class down further. The big guys stand tall against the little guys.
Muley brings Tom and Jim to where Tom’s family is staying. They are packing up a truck and getting ready to move. The men had sold all farming tools like a plow and tractor so they could scrape up some funds for the long trip to California. The men were ripped off and given less than two dollars for all of their equipment. The store owners knew that the people leaving town had to get rid of their stuff immediately, so they would take anything they could get. Meanwhile richer people were migrating into the town to reap the profit from the farm workers struggles.
The family comes together with limited funds and supplies with lots of people to take and feed on their trip. Even though the Joads are having hard times, Mrs. Joad always offers to feed anyone who is hungry. She presents this kindness throughout the whole book, always cooking for the men, children, and any other drifter who needs a hot meal. She reminds me of my mom in the way that she can always make something out of nothing. This also reminds me of our Urban Garden because we try to feed anyone if they need it. I think food is a basic human right and the Urban Garden and community gardens like it are always very generous and helpful. If you do not have food, you will not survive. Mrs. Joad understands this well and treats everyone with equal respect. This is kind of the opposite of everything else that is going on in the Joad’s life. While other people take advantage of their hardships and treat them inhumanely, Ma feeds people of any kind and makes them feel welcome and safe.
Along the way to California, the family faces many complications like automobile problems, the death of their grandpa, eventually the death of their grandmother, and constant harassment from local groups when stopping to camp. When the family is getting close to California, they stop somewhere to rest. They are approached by a local and the Joads discuss how they are traveling in search of work with the following dialog:
“Well, California’s a big State. It ain’t that big. The whole United States ain’t that big. It ain’t that big. It ain’t big enough. There ain’t room enough for you an’ me, for your kind an’ my kind, for rich and poor together all in one country, for thieves and honest men. For hunger and fat. Whyn’t you go back where you come from? This is a free country. Fella can go where he wants. That’s what you think! Ever hear of the border patrol on the California line? Police from Los Angeles—stopped you bastards, turned you back. Says, if you can’t buy no real estate we don’t want you. Says, got a driver’s license? Le’s see it. Tore it up. Says you can’t come in without no driver’s license.”
This “Us against You” displays more inhumanity. They do not care about where you are coming from, only that you may be an inconvenience for their lifestyle. Not very kind at all. Even the police are abusing their authority to make the lives of the Oklahoma families harder. The image of police breaking the law to hurt people is troubling. Their job is to protect and serve the community, but instead they are essentially killing families because they cannot use empathy and see we are all from the same world, and great migration is part of history.
When the family finally makes it to California they stop somewhere to camp with other people traveling from Oklahoma, which the locals called “Oakies”. The Oakies were given hard work and very low wages wherever they went. They could not earn enough money to feed their families working this way. So they tried to make little, hidden gardens in the small, dirty camp they were staying in. Trying to provide any resources they could:
“Now and then a man tried; crept on the land and cleared a piece, trying like a thief to steal a little richness from the earth. Secret gardens hidden in the weeds. A package of carrot seeds and a few turnips. Planted potato skins, crept out in the evening secretly to hoe in the stolen earth. Leave the weeds around the edge—then nobody can see what we’re a-doin’. Leave some weeds, big tall ones, in the middle. Secret gardening in the evenings, and water carried in a rusty can. “ (Ch19)
Before the migrants could harvest these plants, the police would find them and rip them out of the ground. But they continued to work hard because as Steinbeck has addressed over and over in the novel is that people like to work. They like being able to provide for a family and do something productive within their communities. Coming home from a hard day of work is a really great feeling, especially if you know you are doing something good for your loved ones or community. I always feel good coming home after working in the Garden during class. I get some exercise, fresh air, and the reward of bringing home food to make dinner with. I also know that I am helping to provide food and a learning environment for other students. The family decides that they must leave this camp, because they had heard that the police were going to burn it to the ground.
The family traveled and found a new camp full of people just like them. This camp was more organized and had its own sets of rules and punishments that everyone obeyed. Staying here meant a place that the Joads felt safe and comfortable in. Everyone in the camp was treated with the same respect and had an equal voice in the community. Even when other people would stop in to cause trouble, the community did not harm them, but made a plan to safely escort them out. Contrary to the policies local police enforce. The family found work as peach pickers at the rate of five cents a box. Only to find out later that they were strike breakers. The original workers were on strike fighting unfair wages. Here is another great, layered example of inhumanity. The Joad’s come in looking for work, and by finding work they are keeping the original workers out of work. But they have to do this to put food on the table. They have no choice, similarly to the bank representatives who took their farm. During this time of hardworking people fighting for their dignity and against starvation, the owners of the company lose nothing, in fact they continue to gain profit off of the work of struggling people. It is very difficult to be a laborer at this time. On the upside for the Joads, they have a steady income including a higher paying job picking cotton, they are able to afford some new clothes and other “luxuries”, and they are even having fun at dances and social events within the community.
Chapter 25 has a great quote about the transition in farming. Some of them good, some not so sustainable:
“Behind the fruitfulness are men of understanding and knowledge, and skill, men who experiment with seed, endlessly developing the techniques for greater crops of plants whose roots will resist the million enemies of the earth: the molds, the insects, the rusts, the blights. These men work carefully and endlessly to perfect the seed, the roots. And there are the men of chemistry who spray the trees against pests, who sulphur the grapes, who cut out disease and rots, mildews and sicknesses. Doctors of preventive medicine, men at the borders who look for fruit flies, for Japanese beetle, men who quarantine the sick trees and root them out and burn them, men of knowledge. The men who graft the young trees, the little vines, are the cleverest of all, for theirs is a surgeon’s job, as tender and delicate; and these men must have surgeons’ hands and surgeons’ hearts to slit the bark, to place the grafts, to bind the wounds and cover them from the air. These are great men.”
This quote speaks of GMO’s, fertilization, pesticides, and preventing disease and the spread of invasive insects. People are getting smarter and understanding how to make bigger, better, more fruitful crops. This is good, but it is leaving behind farmers who are not educated on these things. This may include minorities, migrants, and people of lower socioeconomic status.
The last chapter of this book does not give a happily ever after for the Joads. They are more or less in the same position the whole book. Making a little more money now, but still no permanent home or guaranteed permanent work. Tom’s sister Maggie gives birth to a stillborn baby. The baby did not have essential nutrition to survive. But shortly after her birth, the family found a young boy with his father, who was dying of starvation. Maggie used her breastmilk to feed the man. This was so powerful to me because even though she had just suffered a huge loss, she is willing to share everything she has to help a complete stranger. A beautiful circle of life. She is just like her mother. Ma Joad had said earlier in the novel: “you’re in trouble or hurt or need — go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help.”
I think that people who come from a poor background understand some basic things: when people are cold, we clothe them,when they are sick, we treat them, and when they are hungry we feed them. Empathy plays such a huge role in a caring community. The Grapes of Wrath shows us that even through the intense struggle of this transition of labor, kindness in a community is one of the most valuable things.
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