Here’s a coincidence for you – I just finished reading The Grapes of Wrath a few days ago, and then today on NPR I heard that it was published 70 years ago today! Surprisingly, I never had to read this in high school — this was my first time reading the book. And I really enjoyed it! The story of the Joad family is tragic, but they somehow always maintain hope.
The book in a nutshell: it’s the Depression, and the Joads (along with many other farmers) are forced off their land in Oklahoma by the banks. Small family farms just can’t turn a profit anymore – they are bought up and plowed by tractor in what I suppose is the beginning of industrialized agriculture. The farmers hear about the promised land of California – where sun-drenched oranges are just waiting to be picked off the trees by anyone who wants one. The Joads buy a run-down jalopy, load up their stuff and the family, and set out on Route 66. Grandpa and Grandma die along the way – symbolic of moving from old to the new? (Similarly, as the Joads look down on California’s Central Valley for the first time, Tom Joad says that the ones who are really seeing it are Ruthie and Winfield – the two youngest Joads.)
When they finally arrive, there are definitely oranges (and a lot of other agricultural wonders) ripe on the trees, but figuratively there is a man with a shotgun in the orchard who will shoot anyone who picks one for himself. There are thousands of “Okies” and not enough work to go around. The big land owners have in effect tricked people into coming to California with their stories and flyers (“Why would they print up flyers about there being jobs if they didn’t have jobs? Those flyers is expensive!”) and now that they have a large, desperate labor pool they can save big bucks on labor costs. The Joads travel around from job to job, eating and living from day to day.
The main theme that keeps creeping up is capitalism vs. communism/socialism. The banks forcing Oklahoma farmers off their land and the landowners in California paying pitiful wages do what they do because they can, and because if they didn’t they would go out of business. The farmers/workers on the other hand, realize that if they united against the bosses they would have the real power, but when they try to strike they are arrested and repressed.
This book made me glad for the time I live in today – not-so-pure capitalism with elements of social programs and the right to unionize. Also, for all the talk of the modern financial crisis…we ain’t seen nothing compared to the trials of the Joads.