In the Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck has achieved an interesting contrapuntal effect by breaking the narrative at intervals with short, impressionistic passages recorded as though by a motion picture camera moving quickly from one scene
to another and from one focus to another. The novel is a powerful indictment of our capitalistic economy and a sharp criticism of the southwestern farmer for his imprudence in the care of his land. The outstanding feature of the Grapes of Wrath is its photographically detailed, if occasionally sentimentalized description of the American farmers of the Dust Bowl in the midthirties of the twentieth century.
Tom Joad was released from the Oklahoma state penitentiary where he had served a sentence for killing a man in self-defense. He traveled homeward through a region made barren by drought and dust storms. On the way he met Jim Casy an expreacher; the pair went together to the home of Tom’s people. They found the Joad place deserted. While Tom and Casy were wondering what had happened, Muley Graves, a diehard tenant farmer, came by and disclosed that all of the families in the neighborhood had gone to California or were going. Tom’s folks, Muley said, had gone to a relative’s place preparatory to going west. Muley was the only sharecropper to stay behind.
All over the southern Midwest states, farmers, no longer able to make a living because of land banks, weather, and machine farming, had sold or were forced out of the farms they had tenanted. Junk dealers and used-car salesmen profiteered on them. Thousands of families took to the roads leading to the promised land, California.
Tom and Casy found the Joads at Uncle John’s place all busy with preparations to leave for California. Assembled for the trip were Pa and Ma Joad; Noah, their mentally backward son, Al, the adolescent younger brother of Tom and Noah, Rose of Sharon, Tom’s sister and her husband, Connie; the Joad children, Rothie and Winfield, and Granma and Grampa Joad. Al had bought an ancient truck to take them west. The family asked Jim Casy to go with them.
Spurred by handbills which stated that agricultural workers were badly needed in California, the Joads, along with thousands of others, made their tortuous way, in a worn out vehicle across the plains toward the mountains. Grampa died of a stroke during their first overnight stop. And, to add to the general misery, returning migrants told the Joads that there was no work to be had in California, that conditions were even worse than they were in Oklahoma. But the dream of a bountiful West Coast urged the Joads onward.
Close to the California line, where the group stopped to bathe in a river, Noah, feeling he was a hindrance to the others, wandered away. It was there that the Joads first heard themselves addressed as Okies, another word for tramps.
Granma died during the night trip across the desert. After burying her, the group went into a Hooverville, as the migrants’ camps were called. There they learned that work was all but impossible to find. A contractor came to the camp to sign up men to pick fruit in another county. When the Okies asked to see his license, the contractor turned the leaders over to a police deputy who had accompanied him to camp. Tom was involved in the fight which followed. He escaped, and Casy gave himself up in Tom’s place. Connie, husband of the pregnant Rose of Sharon, suddenly disappeared from the group. The family was breaking up in the face of its hardships. Ma Joad did everything in her power to keep the group together.
The Joads left Hooverville and went to a government camp maintained for transient agricultural workers. For the first time since they had arrived in California, the Joads found themselves treated as human beings.
Circumstances eventually forced them to leave the camp, however, for there was no work in the district. They drove to a large farm where work was being offered. There they found agitators attempting to keep the migrants from taking the work because of unfair wages offered. But the Joads, thinking only of food, were escorted by motorcycle police into the farm. The entire family picked peaches for five cents a box and earned in a day just enough money to buy food for one meal. Tom, remembering the pickets outside the camp, went out at night to investigate. He found Casy, who was the leader of the agitators. While Tom and Casy were talking, deputies, who had been searching for Casy, closed in on them. The pair fled, but were caught. Casy was killed. Tom received a cut on his head, but not before he had felled a deputy with an ax handle. The family concealed Tom in their shack. The rate for a box of peaches dropped, meanwhile, to two-and-a-half cents. Tom’s danger and the futility of picking peaches drove the Joads on their way. They hid the injured Tom under the mattresses in the back of the truck.
The family found at last a migrant crowd encamped in abandoned boxcars along a stream. They joined the camp and soon found temporary jobs picking cotton. Ma, realizing that Tom was not safe, sent him away.
The Autumn rains began. Soon the stream which ran beside the camp overflowed and water entered the boxcars. Under these all but impossible conditions, Rose of Sharon gave birth to a dead baby. When the rising water made their position no longer bearable, the family moved from the camp on foot. The rains had made their old car useless. They came to a barn, which they shared with a boy and his starving father. Rose of Sharon, bereft of her baby, nourished the famished man with the milk from her breasts. So the poor kept each other alive in the depression years.