by John Steinbeck
“My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other. . . .” —Steinbeck in a 1938 letter
After years of suffering through the Great Depression and sweeping devastation caused by ‘Black Blizzards’ during the Dust Bowl era, farmers and share-croppers of the southern plains began an odyssey toward hope and the green valleys of California. This was a time of sweeping social and economic change. This was a time when banks, powerful land owners, mechanized farming, prejudice and bigotry sent people packing.
While working as a journalist in San Francisco, John Steinbeck wrote a series of feature articles about these migrant workers. He developed a powerful respect for their initiative and empathized with their plight. Those articles were the stimulus that drove him to write Grapes of Wrath. A short time after its publication, Grapes of Wrath received the 1939 Book of the Year Award from the American Booksellers Association. In 1940 it won a Pulitzer Prize for Literature.
Steinbeck used powerful, lyrical prose while establishing many of the scenes his characters lived in and passed through. He had a gift of writing in the vernacular language of the people of Oklahoma, and the surrounding states. Most chapters were anchored in dialog between the Joad family members and those with whom they had contact. Most of the story centers on protagonist Tom Joad, second son and parolee from an Oklahoma state prison. Ma Joad, the matriarch of the family is the glue that holds the family together.
The first half of the book follows the family along Route 66 from eastern Oklahoma across the state into the Texas Panhandle, New Mexico, Arizona and deserts until they are awed by the beauty of California. Along the way, they experience devastating losses, disappointment, and innumerable hardships. The Joad family meets and bonds with fellow travelers, and experience the generosity of a restaurant cook and waitress. After arriving in California, the family learns harsh realities of life as Okie migrants while camping in one of the infamous Hooverville camps or shanty towns.
Steinbeck gives the reader glimpses of the causes and social issues as seen through the eyes of his characters, but he doesn’t stop there. At times he breaks up the journey and branches into short narratives that read like prose poems. In these narratives he frequently uses repetition to drive home his message. He hammers on banks. He has little patience for land owners who call the migrants squatters even though many of these people acquired the land earlier though questionable means.
He shows us sheriffs, vigilantes and private security officers working as pawns of the powerful. These are the implements of injustice and the source of escalating tensions. They will stop at nothing to quash dissent. Migrants are exploited through the devaluation of their work by these land owners.
Grapes of Wrath lives up to its accolades. Be prepared for an emotional ride. Use it as an opportunity to assess your prejudices and preconceived ideas about this trying time in our history. If you haven’t read Grapes of Wrath, you need to do so.
John Steinbeck wasn’t alone in his call for better treatment of migrants. Dorothea Lange featured this population in brilliant photo essays. I’m including a link to some of her iconic images.
Dorothea Lange: Migrants in Steinbeck Country
Quote from, Steinbeck, John; DeMott, Robert (2006-03-28). The Grapes of Wrath . Penguin Group. Kindle Edition..
Content resource: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Grapes_of_Wrath