Book Club: ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ chapters 13-17

Last week’s back-and-forth via email felt much more like a live book club discussion, so we’ll stick with the same format this week. We hope you’ll add your thoughts in the comments section below.

On Sun, Feb 24, 2013 at 10:11 AM, Jenn wrote:

Now that we’re full-on into the narrative, you can feel momentum building with each chapter, as if the words are taking a cue from the truckers racing by on Route 66.

Dorothea Lange; Migrant agricultural worker’s family in Nipomo, California, 1936; gelatin silver print; courtesy the Library of Congress.

To me, the ever-present theme of this section is the formation of family bonds between the migrants. Sairy Wilson and her husband Ivy are perfect examples. The Joads and Wilsons met on the highway and had only known each other for minutes when Sairy offered to help their dying Grampa. An unbreakable bond was formed and the two families begin travelling together, the survival of each now dependent on folks they hardly know.

Reading the allegorical chapters that present a larger view of the migration, it’s clear the boundaries of family units are blurring. They may be losing individuality but are forming what Jim Casy might call a collective family.

To these larger family units, the cares of one are the cares of all. The suffering of a baby’s death ripples through the entire camp,  but their joys have the same effect too. The migrants are beginning to unite, the great fear of wealthy California landowners. And this passage from Chapter 14 made the hair on my neck stand up, just thinking how many times the poor have been manipulated to prevent their organizing and gaining power:

One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep those two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate — “We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one….This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning — from “I” to “we.”

What stood out most to you? What do you think of the unwritten laws of the collective family — are they more or less effective than our “civilized” laws?

On Sun, Feb 24, 2013 at 11:28 AM, Brad wrote:

To me it seems like Steinbeck’s consistently building a case for a grassroots movement. “Call to revolution” might be too strong, but certainly he’s implying a need to stand, to stand together and to gather strength in numbers to combat the wrongs — the hunger, the system forcing people from their land, etc.

Near the end of this section the family meets an old man coming back from California, and the patriarchs hear firsthand how the place they’re headed isn’t the Garden of Eden they were envisioning, and it’s a crushing moment. I wrestle with their decision not to share this information with Ma Joad. On the one hand, there is no home to return to behind them, so I can understand there’s not really much choice. But shouldn’t they all, as a family, be considering what to do at the end of their road? And this comes the same evening that Ma basically took the reigns of the family and refused to leave Tom and Al behind to tend to the broken car.

The code was interesting. Simpler than today’s written code, for sure. More effective in some ways, less in others. I was struck by its focus on children and family — how the needs of the pregnant and the children come first. It’s almost a grim surrender of the present with hopes of a better tomorrow.

I wonder if Tom Joad softened for book-club-reader Aimee at all. His quick work in repairing the car averted disaster. And on the way, he set straight the one-eyed man and attempted to quash his crippling self-pity. Still, it’s this headstrong tendency to call a spade a spade, and the related unwillingness to turn the other cheek, that wound him up in prison the first time and will no doubt spell trouble down the road.

Have you changed at all on who you feel Tom and Ma represent?

On Sun, Feb 24, 2013 at 12:33 PM, Jenn wrote:

I can understand why the patriarchs decide not to share the ragged man’s frightening story with Ma. And honestly, I don’t think telling her would have altered their path. Like you said, they have no choice but to move forward, and Ma’s take on the situation is decidedly zen. When Tom asks her if she’s thinking about California and scared it won’t be as nice as they hope, she quickly responds:

“No, I ain’t. You can’t do that. I can’t do that. It’s too much livin’ too many lives. Up ahead they’s a thousan’ lives we might live, but when it comes, it’ll on’y be one. If I go ahead on all of ’em, it’s too much.”

Everything about their life is fluid,  so planning for all possible outcomes would lead to madness. Survival depends on focusing on the here and now, and Ma’s ability to do just that is the reason the family stays strong. Wish I could do that more in my own life.

I agree with your “hope for a better tomorrow” assessment of the camp code that places the pregnant and the sick above all others. But instead of looking at it as a grim surrender, it makes me think of Gandhi’s statement that “You can judge a society by how they treat their weakest members.” These families are, by far, the most debilitated in America, yet they still have the dignity and strength of character to take care of the weakest among them.

Definitely haven’t changed my thoughts on Ma. She remains the moral compass of the family in my eyes. And Tom is still an Everyman to me, on a desperate pilgrimage to save himself and his family. But he’s far from perfect which makes him interesting — and more real — to me. I have this overwhelming feeling of dread that his stubbornness is going to have terrible ramifications before the story ends.

How do you see Jim Casy’s role changing?

On Sun, Feb 24, 2013 at 1:57 PM, Brad wrote:

Todd Snider’s got a song that starts with that New Testament line, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child,” and then he adds: “I wish I could remember what I said.” Or what’s that old adage? The more I learn the less I know. Something like that.

That’s how I’m seeing Casey these days. At some point he was disillusioned with his calling and started asking real, tactile questions about the life of man, and he started realizing the need for works over the value of words. The more he learns and sees about the land and the people, the less certain he is about anything. He speaks less and questions more.

Shall we throw it to the crowd?

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The next assignment: For next Sunday, let’s read chapters 18-20 (pages 259-361 in my copy.)

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3 Comments

  • February 25, 2013

    Anstaley

    I was struck, like you Jenn, by the same passage. It seems still so relevant – the “makers” and the “takers,” the 1% versus the rest of us. I thought it would have just as great a rallying cry for Occupy Wall Street as it was for the migrants. I’m also struck by so much of the imagery and the dichotomy of the human spirit that is described. I can’t stop thinking of Al trying to run over the cat on the road and a later discussion about a rabbit getting squashed. Or even their dog getting killed early on and that damn turtle. This experience is bringing out the tribal instincts of our ancestors I think. The need to unite and band together for survival, have a common enemy, as well as a need to not be the lowest on the totem pole. To cling to the idea that we, as humans, still do not have lives as seemingly random as the animals.

  • February 26, 2013

    Jenn

    An outstanding point. The collective family really is a tribe of sorts, with quickly solidifying codes and hierarchies. And I’m glad you brought up the book’s treatment of animals. I’ve been wrestling with how it relates to the humans’ experience, and I think you’re spot on. The animals are victims of senseless, random violence, as opposed to the characters who are — for the moment, at least — trying to take control of their lives. Perhaps the animals are foreshadowing the unavoidable fate of the migrants?

  • February 26, 2013

    Brad

    Grandpa’s already succumbed to that fate. And Grandma doesn’t seem far behind. The cynic in me is thinking, well, at least the money will go farther now… The decision to bury Grandpa with a note reminded me of when we cremated our old beagle, Girlfriend. We started to bury the tin of ashes with her name on it before realizing someone who found a tin of remains labeled “girlfriend” might get the wrong idea. So we put a picture of her in with the ashes.

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