Someone put the idea in my head to re-read Grapes of Wrath, and so I did. It is an apt book for the times, when so many jobless, hopeless people are washing up on the shores of the US. Only we’re not banding together to get improved wages, we’re sitting on our duffs and pretending to enact change with the click of a mouse.
Steinbeck intersperses chapters on the Joad family with overarching looks at the time; roadside grills not happy about the Oakies that pull up, hungry, begging for water, the waitresses giddy for the truckers that swing by on a regular basis. Ma Joad is the glue of the family, keeping them going during the migration to California, and keeping them together as best she can during the time post-crossing when they are hated and harassed by deputies. Along they way, they lose Grampa and Gramma to death, Connie (Rose of Sharon’s hubby) to walkabout, and elder brother Noah to wandering. Rosasharon is heavily pregnant, and gives birth to a dead baby at the end, but the milk in her breasts keeps a starving sick man alive whom they stumble upon in a barn when trying to find shelter in the rain. Damn, Steinbeck, you go for the gut.
Tom Joad just released from prison, takes up with ex-preacher Cary, both of them turning into “reds” who try to agitate for worker rights. Al Joad the mechanic-wannabe, who just bemoans his lack of opportunity to go work for a garage, live in a room in the city, and see movies.
There are lots of well-quoted passages from this book, used in union-boosting literature today. This piece struck me, related to the title:
And the smell of rot fills the country.
Burn coffee for fuel in the ships. Burn corn to keep warm, it makes a hot fire. Dump potatoes in the rivers and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out. Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth.
There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates – died of malnutrition – because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.
The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.