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Good Letters

As I wrote last year, I know that a novel has me hooked when I start praying for the characters. And such it was again with my recent return to John Steinbeck’s classic novel of the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939.

My husband and I listened to the CD of the book during our drive from our western New York home to southern Arizona, where we’re spending the winter. Neither of us had read The Grapes of Wrath since high school, a half century ago, and we were curious how it would hold up.

Not only did it hold up; it had us gripped. We weren’t far into the saga of the Joad family’s migrant journey westward when I was praying for every one of the life-like family members.

Too life-like, in a sense. Steinbeck’s story of mid-west tenant farmers forced off their land during the Depression of the 1930s was eerily akin to today’s real-life stories: stories both of American families forced from their homes by the bank foreclosures sweeping our country and of Central American migrants forced off their land and migrating in a desperate search for work to keep their families from starving.

In all these cases, huge, faceless economic forces are behind the misery and dispossession of the poor.

Steinbeck is magnificent at dramatizing these forces. The greed of big business is imaged as a monstrous machine that gobbles its victims and grinds them to shreds, sacrificing them to the god of financial profit. The banks that re-possess the land that families like the Joads have farmed for generations are distant malignant gluttons.

Steinbeck is also magnificent at dramatizing the mass psychology of middle class people who develop a hatred and fear of the migrants who flee to their towns. For The Grapes of Wrath, the towns are in California, where the migrants have been lured by handbills promising good work in “pickin’” the abundant fruits and cotton.

With the glut of migrant workers, the farmers keep lowering the piece-work wages, paying literally starvation wages to those who manage to get even these scarce and always short-term jobs. As the migrants slip deeper and deeper into hunger and debt, local residents come to hate them for their poverty—and take up arms against them. Steinbeck is, alas, describing precisely the mass mentality of the vigilante groups in my winter home of southern Arizona, along the Mexico border.

What keeps The Grapes of Wrath from becoming a political tract is Steinbeck’s mastery of personal character-development and his refusal to stereotype. Every social class depicted has its nasty folk and its good folk. Every member of the Joad family has his or her own personal drama. Steinbeck makes the Joads emblematic of the migrant poor who clearly have his sympathy, but he doesn’t idealize them.

There’s a fascinating tension in the novel which I think Steinbeck was unable to resolve. As the Joads suffer increasing affliction, Steinbeck weaves into their story the efforts of migrants to organize so as to better their lot and receive at least a wage they can feed their families on.

Every effort to organize is met with violent suppression by California’s police in cooperation with what was just becoming “agribusiness.” A few chapters towards the novel’s end, it looks as if the story will follow young Tom Joad as he joins the organizers. But suddenly Tom disappears from the story, which instead follows to the novel’s end the remaining core of the Joad family: their personal nightmare of fleeing a flood while daughter Rose of Sharon gives birth to a baby dead from her malnutrition, and son Al falls in love with a neighbor girl in the migrant camp.

The final scene (which I won’t give away) is a powerfully quiet gesture of Rose of Sharon’s gift of self to save the life of a starving stranger.

Musing on Steinbeck’s choice of how to end the novel—with the social justice thread or the personal thread—I’m guessing he felt he had to bow to reality. In the late 1930s, when he wrote the book, he must not have seen a realistic hope for systemic change that would improve the migrants’ lot. He saw mass nastiness winning out.

Writing this post after our mid-term elections, when campaign nastiness hit a new low, followed by the January Tucson shootings which many attribute ultimately to unbridled hate-mongering in the media, I’m tempted to share his sense of hopelessness about societal decency. He can realistically portray individual decency—and even beauty—in the midst of the most degrading circumstances.

And this beauty is a marvelous, graced thing. I don’t for a moment discount it. Yet as I watch the shiny new Border Patrol cars drive by near my southern Arizona home, sent out here to hunt down our migrant sisters and brothers, I cringe.

And I pray—this time not for the Joads but for the soul of our country.

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