STEINBECK'S MONSTER

 

 

 

In Chapter Five of Steinbeck's masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, the landowners pay a visit to the farms of the tenants whose way of life they are about to destroy. Seated in their comfortable automobiles- while the tenants stand outside or squat in the dust beside them- they explain that they, the owners, are merely:

 

"...men...while the bank...(was)...the monster  that was stronger than they were...You know the land is poor...You know what cotton does to the land; robs it, sucks all the blood out of it...A man can hold land

...until his crops fail one day and he has to borrow money from the bank...But...a bank...don't breathe

air...They breathe  profits...If they don't get it, they die...The tenant  system won’t work anymore. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take the crop. We have to do it. We don't like to do it. But the monster's sick (p. 43, 44)..."

 

To this civics lesson of the ruling class, the tenants reply:

 

"What do you want us to do?...we're  half starved now. The kids are hungry all the time. We got no clothes...it's our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it...That makes ownership, not a paper (p. 44, 45)..."

 

But the owners have their lesson prepared in advance:

 

"It's not us...The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it (p. 45)..."

 

But the tenants know their own history, and respond to the owners:

 

"...Grampa killed Indians, Pa killed snakes for the land. Maybe we can kill banks- they're worse than Indians and snakes. Maybe we got to fight to keep our land, like Pa and Grandpa did...We'll get our guns...What then (p. 46)?..."

 

Once again, the owners have their lesson down cold:

 

"Well- first the sheriff, and then the troops...The monster  isn't men, but it can make men do what it wants (p. 46)..."

 

Later in Chapter Five, the tenant's hungry children watch a tractor driver eating his lunch. One of the parents joins them, asking the driver how he can accept a job that pits him against his own people. To this, he replies:

 

"I got a wife and kids. We got to eat...Got to think of my own kids...You got no call to worry about anybody's kids but your  own...And  look- suppose you kill me? They'll just hang you, but long before you're hung there'll be another guy on the tractor...You're not killing the right guy (p. 50-52)..."

 

 

So the tenant wonders- who is the right guy- the bank, its president, the board of directors? Although he doesn't understand the system entirely, he knows that what men make, they can unmake:

 

"...where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don't aim to starve to death before I kill the man that's starving me...There's some way to stop this. It's not like lightning or earthquakes. We've got a bad thing made by men, and by God that's something we can change (p. 52)..."

 

"...all of them were caught in something larger than themselves (p. 42)..." is how Steinbeck summarizes the scene. Nowhere is the forbidden word 'capitalism' ever uttered, however, although the cruelty of the system and the suffering it inflicts are at the very heart of this unforgettable novel.

 

In Chapter One the author describes what Marx called the “labor process"- how men produce what they need within the context of both nature and society. And it is with the detailed observation of a scientist and the flowing cadence of the King James Bible that The Grapes of Wrath begins.

 

The last rains arrive. The sun flares down upon the corn "...until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet (p.l)..." The clouds come and go. Then the earth crusts over and the winds blow

dust throughout the land: "...the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were

freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth...the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn (p. 5)..."

 

Finally, the tenants themselves enter the picture, huddling within their homes. They wear handkerchiefs over their faces to protect them against the dust that blocks out the sun itself:

 

"In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood...Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn...The men were silent...And the women came out of their houses to stand beside the men- to feel whether this time the men would break...After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe...no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole (p. 6,7)..."

 

But during the course of the novel we learn that some of the men do not remain whole; and the women, Ma Joad in particular, must replace them as leaders of the tribe. This is one of the two main themes of the novel: Ma's heroic effort to keep the family together. The other is her son, Tom's, gradual radicalization. Let us begin with Tom's story.

 

He has just been released from McAlester prison on parole, after serving four years on a charge of homicide. On his way home to see his family, he meets the Reverend Jim Casy, formerly a preacher. The two head towards the Joad farm, where they find the family has been evicted, and learn, from their neighbor, Muley, that they are now at their Uncle John's, preparing to move westward. Arriving at their Uncle John's, they spot the covered wagon of the times- a Hudson Super-Six sedan ripped in two to create a make-shift truck. On this modern prairie schooner the extended family will make the long trek west. We are introduced to Tom's family- first his Pa- as his stands in the truck bed, hammering in nails to create side rails:

  

"He wore a black, dirty slouch hat and a blue work shirt over which was a buttonless vest; his jeans were held up by a wide harness-leather belt with a big square brass buckle...his shoes were cracked and the soles swollen and boat-shaped from years of sun and wet and dust...His face, squared by a bristling pepper and salt beard, was all drawn down to the forceful chin...the skin was...wrinkled in rays around

his eye-corners  from squinting. His eyes were brown...and he thrust his head forward when he looked at a thing, for his bright  dark eyes were failing (p.96)..."

 

Already, in this first encounter, we learn that Pa has been traumatized by the loss of the farm. At first, he doesn't even recognize Tom. Later, in his family disputes with Ma, we see he has lost his nerve: that she must now become head of the family. Next, we meet Ma, our heroine:

 

"Ma was heavy, but not fat; thick with child-bearing and work. She  wore a loose Mother Hubbard of gray cloth...Her full face was not soft; it was controlled, kindly. Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced  all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps...She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family...if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall (p.99,100)..."

 

After Tom learns what has happened to the family since his time in prison, Ma takes him aside, afraid of what incarceration might have done to him. She tells him the story of Pretty Boy Floyd- how prison had turned him into a killer:

 

"I got to know, Tommy. Did they hurt you so much? Did they make you mad...?"... "No," he said. "I ain't like that."...

She sighed, "Thank God!" under her breath...

 

"Ma, when I seen what they done to our house-"...

 

"Tommy, don't you go fightin' 'em alone. They'll hunt you down like a coyote (p. 103, 4)..."

 

Ma knows her son is a fighter. He had gone to prison because he killed a man in self-defense. So she is worried he might rashly place himself  in danger. And her fears are prophetic. What she believes might happen to her son is the fate that later overtakes their friend, the former preacher, Casy. And it is Casy's example that will inspire Tom to become an organizer. After the conversation between mother and son, we meet the other members of the family- the grandparents, children and relatives. Then Ma confides in Tom about her worries about their journey:

 

"Tom,I hope things is all right in California."

 

"He turned and looked at her."What makes you think they ain't?" he asked.

 

"Well- nothing.  Seems too nice, kinda. I seen the han'bills  fellas pass out, an' how much work they is, an' high wages...l'm scared somepin ain't  so nice about it (p. 122,23)..."

 

Finally, the family holds a conference before the ancient Hudson sedan:

  

"The house was dead, and the fields were dead; but this truck was the...new hearth, the living center of the family (p. 35, 6)..." We witness the clash of wills between Ma and Pa over whether or not to take Casy with them. On this occasion, Pa yields to Ma's insistence that "...1 never herd tell of no Joads...ever refusin' food an' shelter or a lift on the road to anybody that asked (p. 139)..."

 

Then they pack up all their belongings and pile on top of the overloaded, makeshift truck. "And the truck crawled slowly through the dust toward the highway and the west (p. 156)..." Now Steinbeck moves from the family to the class affected by the failure of society:

 

"Highway 66 is the main migrant road...the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors...AII day they rolled slowly along the road, and at night they stopped near water. In the day ancient leaky radiators sent up columns of steam, loose connecting rods hammered and pounded. And the men driving the trucks and overloaded cars listened apprehensively...Listen to the motor. Listen to the wheels...'F we can on'y get to California where the oranges grow before this here ol' jug blows up (p. 161, 62)..."

 

And the migrants are rarely welcomed by those through whose states they pass. The citizens of these states have been subject to the media's propaganda that made scapegoats out of the migrants, blaming them for the failure of society:

 

"Where you come from? Where all of you goin'?...Whyn't you go back where you come from?... "It's a free country..."

"...you're jus' as free as you got jack to pay for it (p. 163)..."

 

While Tom was in prison, Casy has been traveling around the country, observing conditions for himself. Tom learns from his own and Casy's experience. When their truck pulls into a gas station to fill up the tank, Tom, Casy and the gas station owner  exchange a few words. The owner begins:

 

"I jus' don't  know what the country's comin' to..".

 

Casy said,"I been walkin' aroun' in the country. Everbody's askin' that..."Here's me that used to give all my fight against the devil...But they's somepin  worse'n the devil got hold a the country...Ever seen one a them Gila monsters take hold, mister? Grabs hold, an' you chop him in two an' his head hangs on. Chop him at the neck an' his head hangs on. Got to take a screw-driver an' pry his head apart to git him loose (p. 173, 75)...''

 

On their way west, Grandpa dies, and they are forced to decide whether to pay the burial fee or use the little money they have to continue their journey. They learn that the law was not written for them:

 

"Grampa buried his pa with his own hand, done it in dignity, an' shaped the grave nice with his own shovel..."

 

"The law says different now,'' said Uncle John.

 

"Sometimes the law can't be foller'd noway...Not in decency...Sometimes a fella got to sift the law...l'm sayin' now I got the right to bury my own pa (p. 190, 91)..."

 

On their journey west, the migrants can't help wondering 'what the country's comin to'. Earlier, we witnessed how the farmer was pitted against the tractor driver to divide the landed workers. And the tractor driver, himself, warned that others of their class would be employed by the state as police and the military if the farmers fought back. Now they examine how the process of mechanization- the replacement of labor-power (i.e. our ability to work) by more productive machinery- is represented by the tractor:

 

"Pa borrowed money from the bank, and now the bank wants the land. The land company...wants tractors, not families on the land. Is a tractor bad?...lf this tractor were ours it would be good- not mine, but ours...But this tractor does two things- it turns the land and it turns us off the land (p. 205,

206)..."

 

And even the "great owners" are nervous, mistaking results for causes:

 

"...the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times...hunger for joy and some security...muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create...Need is the stimulus to concept; concept to action. A half-million people moving over the country; a million more restive, ready to move (p. 204,

207)..."

 

A turning point in the novel is another gathering of the extended family. Having joined forces with the Wilsons, an elderly couple with an ailing automobile, Tom proposes that he and Casy stay behind with the car, while the others go ahead in the truck to look for work.  But this sets Ma against Pa:

 

"Pa scratched the dry earth with his forefinger. "I kind a got a notion Tom's right," he said... Ma said worriedly, "How you gonna find us?"...

"Don't you worry," Tom reassured her...

 

"Looks like an awful big place on the map," said Ma...

 

•••

 

Pa said, "Well, if that's the way she's gonna go, we better get a-shovin 111

 

 

Ma stepped in front of him. "I ain't a-gonna go."

"What you mean, you ain't  gonna go. You got to look after the family." Pa was amazed at the revolt... Ma stepped to the touring car and reached in on the floor of the back seat. She brought out a jack

handle and balanced it in her hand easily.

 

"On'y way you gonna get me to go is whup me." She moved the jack handle gently again. "An' I'll shame you, Pa."..."What we got lef  in the worl'? Nothin' but us.  Nothin' but the folks"...The eyes of the whole family shifted back to Ma. She was the power (p. 228-31)..."

  

They continue on their journey, stopping at a camp for the night. There, they encounter suspicion on the part of the locals, and spy a man in rags, his face black with dust. As they head to California, he is on his way back. He asks if they are rich, and Pa replies, 'no'. Pa says they've been told there's plenty of work and good wages:

 

"The ragged man stared while Pa spoke, and then he laughed, and his laughter turned to a high whinnying giggle... "Me -I'm comin' back. I been there...l'm goin' back to starve. I ruther starve all over at oncet (p. 257)..."

 

The ragged man explains to them the economics of what Marx called the "industrial reserve army": how, with a vast pool of the unemployed willing to compete for lower and lower wages, the farm owners can divide them against each other. The owners' interest is in a profitable crop. Whether others starve is neither their concern, nor within their power to prevent:

 

"I tried to tell you folks," he said. "Somepin it took me a year to find out. Took two kids dead, took my wife dead to show me. But I can't tell you. I should of knew that. Nobody couldn't tell me, neither. I can't tell ya about them little fellas layin' in the tent with their bellies puffed out..."

 

The ragged man looked around at the circle, and then he turned and walked quickly away into the darkness (p. 260)..."

 

From the family, Steinbeck once more turns to the class. As in so many other cases of natural or social catastrophe, when the government fails to provide the necessities of life, people are forced to organize themselves. And necessity teaches us that we can provide for ourselves:

 

"...they huddled together; they talked together; they shared their lives, their food, and the things they hoped for...twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all...Then leaders emerged, then laws were made...The families learned what rights must be observed...the right of the hungry to be fed; the rights of the pregnant and the sick...rules became laws...A man with food fed a hungry man, and thus insured himself against hunger...Thus they changed their social life- changed as in the whole universe only man can change (p. 264-67)..."

 

On their way west, the Joads stop at a migrant camp to spend the night. They're about to get settled in, when a cop pokes his head into their tent:

 

"Who's in here?"...He beat on the tarpaulin with his hand, and the tight canvas vibrated like a drum... Ma asked, "What is it you want, mister?"...

"...If you're here tomorra this time I'll run you in..."

 

Ma's face blackened with anger. She slowly got to her feet. She stooped to the utensil box and picked out the iron skillet. "Mister," she said, "you got a tin button an' a gun. Where I come from, you keep your voice down." She advanced on him with the skillet. He loosened the gun in the holster. "Go ahead,"  said Ma. "Scarin'  women. I'm thankful the men folks ain't here. They'd tear ya to pieces. In my country you watch your tongue."

 

The man took two steps backward. "Well, you ain't in your country now. You're in California, an' we don't want you goddamn Okies  settlin' down (p. 291)..."

 

They continue their journey and finally come to the promised land. For a moment, all their worries are eclipsed by this brief vision of paradise:

 

"AI jammed on the brake and stopped in the middle of the road, and, "Jesus Christ! Look!" he said. The vineyards, the orchards, the great flat valley, green and beautiful...Pa sighed, "I never knowed they was anything like her."...Ruthie and Winfield scrambled down from the car, and then they stood, silent and awestruck...Ruthie whispered, "It's California (p. 309, 10)..."

 

Wishing to share the view with Ma, they persuade her to emerge from the rear of the truck. She slowly climbs down, the lids of her eyes red with weariness. Weak on her feet, she braces herself against the truck. Then she turns to look, her mouth wide open with wonder:

 

"Thank God!" she said. "The fambly's here." Her knees buckled and she sat down on the running board..."Granma's dead."...

 

"Tom said, "Jesus Christ! You layin' there with her all night long!" "The fambly hadda get acrost," Ma said miserably (p. 311, 12)..."

Now the author turns once again to the larger picture. He likens California's agro-business to the latifundia of the Roman Empire, its successive waves of both immigrants and natives to those captured in war by that slave state:

 

"Now farming became industry, and the owners followed Rome, although they did not know it. They imported slaves, although they did not call them slaves. Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans,   Fillipinos. They lived on rice and beans...They don't need much...if they get funny- deport them...the farms grew larger and the owners fewer...And the imported serfs were beaten and frightened and starved...And then the dispossessed were drawn west- from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas...And new waves were on the  way (p.

316-18)..."

 

Another step in Tom's radicalization takes place when they stop overnight at a camp, and he becomes friendly with a young man, Floyd, working on his car. After Floyd explains how the economics of fruit picking causes cut-throat competition between them, Tom suggests:

 

"Well, s'pose  them people got together an' says, 'Let 'em rot.' Wouldn't be long 'fore the price went up, by God!"...

 

"Folks figgered that out. An'  the folks with the peach orchard figgered her out too. Look, if the folks  gets together, they's a leader- got to be- fella that does the talkin'. Well, first time this fella opens his

mouth they grab 'im an' stick 'im in jail. An' if they's another leader pops up, why, they stick 'im in jail."...

 

"... I ain't gonna take it. Goddamn it, I an' my folks ain't no sheep. I'll kick the hell outa somebody."... "They'll pick you right off. You got no name, no property. They'll find you in a ditch..."

"They'll be somebody else foun' dead right alongside..." "Won't be no good in that."...

"Well, what you doin' about it?"...

 

"I know ya jus' got here. They's stuff ya got to learn...lf ya don' let me tell ya, then ya got to learn the hard way (p. 336, 37, 55}..."

 

Then a new Chevrolet coupe' pulls into the camp. A contractor, wearing a Stetson and carrying a sheaf of papers, gets out, approaches them and asks if they want to work. Floyd asks how many workers he needs and how much he is paying. The contractor avoids answering these questions.  Having been exposed by Floyd, he turns to his automobile, and calls for an armed deputy, seated inside, to join them:

 

"Ever see this guy before, Joe?" The deputy asked "Which one?" "This fella...He's talkin' red."...

"Get in that car," he said, and he unhooked the strap that covered the butt of his automatic. Tom said, "You got nothin' on him."...

The deputy swung around." 'F you'd like to go in too, you jus' open your trap once more..."

 

"Might be good idear to go...Be a bunch a guys down here, maybe with pick handles, if you ain't gone (p.

357-60}..."

 

The deputy tries to arrest Floyd, but he punches him and takes off. Tom sticks his foot out to trip the deputy. As Floyd flees, the deputy fires wildly and hits one of the women in the camp, shattering her hand. The deputy is about to fire again, when Casy steps in and kicks him in the neck. The contractor jumps in his car and speeds away. In the aftermath, Casy convinces Tom to leave, since the deputy would recognize him and he is still on parole. Then Tom asks:

 

"Yeah? How 'bout you?"

 

Casy grinned at him. "Somebody got to take the blame. I got no kids. They'll jus' put me in jail (p. 362,

63}..."

 

Casy waits with the unconscious deputy  until the cops arrive and he is arrested. As they drive away in the police car, Casy, seated between two deputies "...sat proudly, his head up and the stringy muscles of his neck prominent. On his lips there was a faint smile and on his face a curious look of conquest (p.

364)..."

  

The ex-priest has finally found his calling, while Tom has learnt about the role of the police in the capitalist state. As the family leaves the camp in their truck, Tom explains to Ma:

 

"They comes a time when a man gets mad."

 

Ma broke in, "Tom -you tol' me- you promised..."

 

"I know, Ma. I'm a-tryin'. But them deputies...They're a-workin' away at our spirits...They're tryin' to break us...they comes a time when the on'y way a fella can keep his decency is by takin' a sock at a cop..."

 

Ma said, "You promised, Tom. That's how Pretty Boy Floyd done..."

"I'm a-tryin', Ma..."

"You got to have patience...we're the people...They ain't gonna wipe us out..." "We take a beatin' all the time."

"...Maybe that makes us tough. Rich fellas come up... an' they die out. But, Tom, we keep a-commin' (p.

380-83)...11

 

An oasis in the nation's migrant jungle is the government camp, Weedpatch. Not only are there toilets, showers and wash tubs, but the camp is actually run by those who live there. And there are no cops! Or rather, the residents elect their own:

 

"The folks in the camp are getting used to being treated like humans. When they go back to the squatters' camps they'll be hard to handle (p. 404)..."

 

The Joads drive in and unload. Exploring the modern sanitary facilities, they're overwhelmed by these simple conveniences that seem miraculous to them. And they can't believe the friendliness shown by their neighbors. As the Joads settle in, they- and Tom in particular -learn why the growers fear the camp's example:

 

"They're scairt we'll organize...Figger maybe if we can gover'n ourselves, maybe we'll do other things (p.

406)..."

 

Tom asks his new neighbors about what he has read about 'reds'. They tell him about another who had asked the same question. On that occasion, an owner, Hines, had complained:

 

'"Goddamn reds is drivin' the country to ruin,' he says, an' 'We got to drive these here red bastards out.' Well, they were a young fella jus' come out west here, an' he's listenin' one day. He kinda scratched his head an' he says, 'Mr. Hines, I ain't  been here long. What is these goddamn reds?' Well, sir, Hines says,

'A red is any son-of-a-bitch that's wants thirty cents an hour when we're  payin' twenty-five! Well, this

young fella he thinks about her, an' he scratches his head, an' he says, 'Well, Jesus, Mr. Hines. I ain't a son-of-a-bitch, but if that's what a red is- why, I want thirty cents an hour. Ever'body does. Hell, Mr. Hines, we're all reds.'...Tom laughed. "Me too, I guess (p. 406,7)..."

  

The author pauses now before the beauty of California in the springtime. And from a description of the natural wealth of the land, he focuses in on the way that wealth is wasted. The little orchard will be eaten up by the great holding. The vineyard will be taken over by the bank and the cannery owners. The technologies that enable us to graft trees, make seed fertile, even create brand new fruits- when used on behalf of the owners- prevent those who starve from eating:

 

"The works of the roots of the vines... must be destroyed to keep up the prices...Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground...And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges...Burn coffee for fuel...Burn corn to keep warm...Dump potatoes in rivers...Siaughter  pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence

drip down into the earth...And children dying of pellagra...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 (p. 476, 77)..."

 

The Joads must leave their beloved Weedpatch,  moving on to find work. They arrive at an orchard, where the road is blocked by automobiles and motorcycle police. In the ditch beside the road are men and women, shouting and shaking their fists. Each car is stopped and they're asked if they want work. If so, they're directed on into the camp. It is composed a block of square box houses, each with a door and window. At the end of each block are armed men with shotguns, wearing silver stars pinned to their shirts. The Joads inspect the filthy shack- its floor splashed with grease. They scour the floor and unload their family goods. Then they hurry off to the orchards to pick peaches. After dinner, Tom decides to

take a walk to see about the activity outside the camp. He runs into an armed guard who warns him against the 'reds' who are picketing. Despite the warning, Tom leaves the camp and runs into Casy, leader of the strike. Casy tells him about his time in jail and his transformation into a labor organizer:

 

"The preacher leaned forward and the yellow lantern light fell on his high pale forehead. "Jail house is a kinda funny place," he said."Here's me, been a-goin' into the wilderness like Jesus to try find out somepin...But it's in the jail house I really got her...mostly they was there 'cause they stole stuff; an' mostly it was stuff they needed an' couldn' get no other way...lt's need that makes all the trouble (p.

521)..."

 

Casy explains to Tom how the owners force them to compete against each other in order to reduce the wage. Only the strike will maintain the wage they are currently paid. And it was a wage with which they could barely feed their families. Once the strike is broken, they'll cut their wages again. He asks Tom to warn the workers inside the camp. Then the strikers are spotted by cops:

 

"A sharp call, "There they are!" Two flashlight beams fell on the men, caught them, blinded them. "Stand where you are."...

 

Casy stared blindly at the light. He breathed heavily. "Listen," he said. "You fellas don' know what you're doin'. You're helpin' to starve kids."

 

"Shut up, you red son-of-a-bitch."

A short heavy man stepped into the light. He carried a new white pick handle...The heavy man swung with the pick handle...The heavy club crashed into the side of his head with a dull crunch of bone, and Casy fell sideways out of the light.

 

"Jesus, George. I think you killed him."

 

"Put the light on him," said George...the flashlight beam dropped, searched and found Casy's crushed head.

 

Tom looked down at the preacher. The light crossed the heavy man's legs and the white new pick handle. Tom leaped silently. He wrenched the club free...his crushing blow found the head...as the heavy man sank down...Tom stood over the prostrate man. And then a club reached his head...And then he

was  running (p. 527}..."

 

His face badly damaged, Tom manages to get back to the Joad tent and finally fall asleep. The next morning Ma discovers his injuries. Afraid that Tom will be recognized and arrested, the family leaves the camp to look for work elsewhere. They finally find a place with red boxcars and a sign "Cotton Pickers Wanted." As the family settles into the boxcar, Tom hides in the swamp outside the camp, afraid his injured face will alert the authorities. Ma brings food to his hideout, where he has had time to consider Casy's  murder:

 

"Guess who I been thinkin' about? Casy! He talked a lot..." "He was a good man," Ma said.

"I been thinkin' how it was in that gov'ment camp, how our folks took care a theirselves...an' they wasn't no cops...I been a-wonderin' why we can't do that all over....AII work together for our own thing..."

 

"Tom," Ma repeated, "what you gonna do?" "What Casy done”, he said.

"But they killed him...They might kill ya an' I wouldn't know."...

 

"...it don't matter...I'll be ever'where...Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there...Where they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there...l'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad...in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build- why, I'll be there (p. 572)..."

 

Ma returns to the camp, knowing she might never again see her son. There, she meets Pa: "Ma sighed, "I foun' Tom," she said softly. "I- sent 'im away. Far off."...

Pa nodded slowly..."l ain't no good any more...Funny!  Woman takin' over the fambly."... "Woman can change better'n a man."...

 

"Seems like our life's over an' done."

 

"No, it ain't," Ma smiled. "It ain't,  Pa. An' that's one more thing a woman knows. I noticed that. Man, he lives in jerks...Woman, it's all one flow, like a stream...it goes right on...Jus' try to live the day, jus' the

day (p. 576-78)..."

 

Then once more, as at the beginning of the novel, Mother Nature intervenes. The clouds march in from the ocean. The winds blow fiercely and roar within the forests. There are sprinkles, showers. Then the

rain settles in a steady beat and the dry earth sucks it up and blackens. The lakes rise up and the streams spill over. Finally, they reach the orchards and deepen into lakes. And the migrants greatest fear is realized- no work for months ahead:

 

"In the barns, the people sat huddled together...their faces grey with terror. The children cried with hunger, and there was no food. Then the sickness came, pneumonia, and measles...Then from the tents, from the crowded barns, groups of sodden men went out...to the towns...to the relief  offices, to beg for food. And under the begging, and under the cringing, a hopeless anger began to smolder...and anger at the hungry people changed to fear of them. Then sheriffs swore in deputies, and orders were rushed for rifles...And the rain pattered relentlessly down (p. 591)..."

 

The Joads pregnant daughter, Rose of Sharon, loses her baby. To dispose of the corpse, their Uncle John takes it out of the boxcar to the swift flowing stream:

 

"For a time he stood watching it swirl by, leaving its yellow foam among the willow stems. He held the apple box against his chest. And then he leaned over and set the box in the stream and steadied it with his hand. He said fiercely, "Go down an' tell 'em. Go down in the street an' rot an' tell 'em that way. That's the way you can talk..."...He guided the box gently out into the current and let it go (p. 609)..."

 

The floods force the Joads to abandon their boxcar and seek shelter on higher ground. They wander through the downpour and finally come upon a rain-soaked barn. Here, they meet a boy and his starving father, who is dying in the corner of the barn:

 

"Suddenly the boy cried, "He's dyin', I tell you!..."

 

"Hush," said Ma. She looked at Pa and Uncle John standing helplessly gazing at the sick man. She looked at Rose of Sharon huddled in the comfort. Ma's eyes passed Rose of Sharon's eyes, and then came back to them. And the two women looked deep into each other..."Come on, you fellas," she called. "You

come out in the tool shed."...For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn...she hoisted

her tired body up...moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down  at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then she slowly lay down beside him..."There!" she said. "There." Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously."

 

Her dead baby's milk will give life to a dying stranger. 

© 2015 By Mark Dickman