After Reading "Grapes of Wrath"

So many words have been written before me on this, that I am afraid my words might not add anything new here. But still, I would like to record how I felt as I took a journey with the Joads from Oklahoma to California. The story begins when Tom Joad hitchhikes back to his once home after his parole was approved. Upon return he finds things that he had never dreamt of. Their house and farmland, all gone; swallowed by some abstract entity called “the bank”; the family finance is ruined; they are on the verge of becoming destitute. But, still there is hope. They heard about lots and lots of jobs in California, that’s where they are heading now. As they travel through route 66 on their makeshift truck, their hopes for future waxes and wanes.

I had this one sitting on my reading list for quite a while. This year, I have decided to read more fiction books and so I started with this one. Needless to say, John Steinbeck did a marvelous job of depicting the environment and the characters. The book starts with an awe-inspiring description of drought in a cotton field. He used a pattern of alternating between commenting on the plight of the migrants and moving the storyline forward with the Joads. It took me a while to get drawn into the story but once I was in, I was in there for a ride. I travelled with the Joads on that entire stretch of route 66 from Oklahoma to California. Couple of years back, I actually drove from St. Louis to Bakersfield myself on 66 and so I found the geography quite familiar.

The most odd thing about this novel to me was that I was completely ignorant of this mass migration to California. I knew about the depression of the 1930s and how the cities were impacted but never really heard anything about how this impacted farmers in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. As these farmers failed to make the rent payment to the bank, they lost their houses and lands to the banks. I guess this is a fate that poor are supposed to suffer in a capitalistic society. At the same time, the progress of technological innovations in agriculture made farming less labor-intensive, which was the final blow by making most of the farmers redundant. The land did not need any farmer to keep it productive, all the machines were there to extract the life out of the land. John Steinbeck eloquently described how farming became less about farmers and more about book-keepers.

As these people lost their way of making a living of the land, the only way known to them for generations, they had no other options but to grab every straw available to stay afloat. The sad reality of human experience is that whenever one is faced with very limited choices, there is always someone else to take advantage of it. We see that being manifested in the lovely orchards of California. I am starting to reconsider my standing on minimum wage after reading this. With abundant supply of labor and scarcity of jobs, the orchard owners had the leverage to make these hungry people to work for a wage that was even below what is needed to barely survive. I was also somewhat surprised (although in hindsight, I should not have) to see how society at large provides structural protection for the rich. I guess, at the end of the day, in a capitalistic society, money is the ultimate source of influence.

As I was reading it, I often questioned what made the Joads and all these migrants keep going. They clearly knew all the odds were against them, but still they kept trying. I think the internal force to stay alive against all adversity is the greatest human quality. Even after losing everything, a glimmer of hope can make humans dream again, of a fertile future. I saw that time and time again in the book, where just a rumor of good fortune made the Joads dream about what they are going to do with that fortune. That inner fire kept them alive and I think that’s what capitalism feeds on.

Published at: 02/27/2021