Book Club: ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ chapters 18-20

I started the “Grapes of Wrath” e-book-club chat with Jenn this week. Y’all please share your thoughts, too…

On Sun, Mar 3, 2013 at 10:16 AM, Brad wrote:

So where to begin? We only read three chapters, but they were eventful. The clan makes it to California, but not before losing an unprecedented number of their party. (Grandpa and Grandma (both dead), Noah, both Wilsons (one likely dead), Connie (hopefully dead), and very nearly Uncle John. Did I miss anyone?

An actual Hooverville

It felt like Gothic horror, yes, but I was moved by Ma Joad riding next to the dead body of Grandma for the last leg of the trip, being the only one to know she’d passed and being pale as a sheet when they cross into Cali.

We also saw Jim Casy fulfill what I suspected would be his destiny, given his initials, as he turns himself over to police as a proxy for the probation-breaking Tom Joad. If our analogy is correct, and Casy “dies” for man’s sins, then does Tom really represent man, or do the cruel farmers and landowners described in the very powerful middle chapters represent the sinners who need a savior? And will we see him again? Ponder…

What most moved you?

On Sun, Mar 3, 2013 at 1:29 PM, Jenn wrote:

The image of a grey, sunken-eyed Ma climbing down from her vigil over the dead body will haunt me for a long time. I shook too as the Joads “looked at Ma with a little terror at her strength.” Can’t help but think the time will come when each of them will be forced to do something terrifying to protect the family, and I wonder how this will affect Ma’s ability to stay positive, to will them forward when there’s no hope.

Over and over, I’m moved by how these poor, uneducated people see the truth so acutely. Whether it’s Jim Casy’s Zen-like condemnation of materialism…

If he needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it ’cause he feels awful poor inside hisself, and if he’s poor in hisself, there ain’t no million acres gonna make him feel rich…I never seen nobody that’s busy as a prairie dog collectin’ stuff that wasn’t disappointed.

…or Sairy’s rebuke — and reminder of the collective Human Spirit — when Casy feels unworthy because he has no God…

You got a God. Don’t make no difference if you don’t know what he looks like.

Life for these people has been stripped away to its bare bones. The immediacy of day-to-day survival has given them an insight most of us will never have.

I see Casy’s sacrifice as a singular act for one family, not necessarily atonement for the actions of the cruel landowners. But according to  his philosophy, if one family suffers, they all suffer, and if one rejoices, so do they all. So in a sense, his decision to save the Joads will ripple across that Collective Family we’ve talked about over the weeks.

Why do you think they were so determined to head south, when they have it from a reliable source that more jobs will be available in the north?

On Sun, Mar 3, 2013 at 2:09 PM, Brad wrote:

I was surprised when they turned south. I thought for sure Tom was steering Connie wrong with his message to the shopkeep. He must be more than desperate to find a place to rest for Rose of Sharon and, more significantly right now, Ma, who seems totally spent. Or maybe, since it’s the closer of the two destinations, he’s thinking, “Why not try?” I also think that, since the farmers spread the word about work to the north, he knows there’s little hope he’ll be pulled in to a job before the masses get there.

Poor migrant children at a Hooverville

So you see Casy not as Christ, but as a sort of lower-s savior to the Joads. I like the description of him almost smiling as he’s hauled away, knowing he’s done the Joads some good in return for their kindness.

I thought Chapter 19 was one of the stronger non-Joad thesis-establishing chapters in the book so far. It’s the first time he puts a face on the businessmen and empire-building farmers, and it’s not a pretty face at that. These businessmen liken the Okies to blacks of the South — in terms of their unruliness if not given an iron-fist. But the comparison seems apt in a lot of ways, for the Californians are essentially turning the Okies into slaves. The migrant will make money, assuming they can find work, but they’ll owe more than they earn at the company store. And the very civil unrest Steinbeck seems to be pushing the Okies toward is exactly what would eventually start blacks down their Freedom Road.

I want to try and ferret out if R.E.M.’s “Gardening at Night” was inspired by the line Steinbeck wrote about the Okies trying to sneak into the weeds a grow a little something:

Secret gardenings in the evening, and water carried in a rusty can.

On Sun, Mar 3, 2013 at 5:29 PM, Jenn wrote:

Agree with you completely about the strength of Chapter 19. The idea that someone could have millions of acres of unused land, yet deny starving men a few plants, is absolute insanity. Especially when the reason those men are starving is because of the landowners’ effort to recruit thousands more than they need in order to drive wages down.

I would even go so far as to make a modern-day comparison of the Okies to migrant Latino workers. The pay isn’t enough to live on, they’re under constant threat of harassment from immigration officers, and they’re looked down upon by the very people who depend on them. While reading about the deputy chasing away Hooverville inhabitants, I kept thinking about a story my uncle told years ago. One of his friends, a south Georgia onion farmer, depended on migrant workers to harvest the crop. Rumor spread one week about an INS raid, so the workers had no choice but to leave, right when the onions needed to be pulled. The farmer tried to hire local, unemployed neighbors but they all refused because the work was beneath them — and in the same breath, the lazy townspeople would rejoice in the migrants’ departure. Sadly, most of the onions rotted in the field before the farmer could get to them. To me, it was another instance where the soft and spoiled are incapable of taking care of themselves and resent those who can.

All in all, it was a pretty disheartening section. I’d be curious to hear what our readers thought about the Joads’ first days in California. Were you able to glean anything uplifting from these chapters?


The next assignment: There’ s a bit too much to bite off in just one week, so let’s do chapters 21-25 for next Sunday and wrap things up the following week. 


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  • I found it all so depressing. What sticks in my mind is the hungry children waiting around Ma’s stew. That imagery just broke my heart. But it again translates to current times – 12 million children in this country go hungry during a time of unprecedented wealth among that top 1% percent. Capitalism continues to move forward and leave the masses behind.

  • Thanks for bringing up something that I’ve been thinking about for weeks, Aimee. I’ve been telling myself that this could NOT happen in the states today — at least at this scale. That news crews and social media would expose it and we’d put a stop to it with some sort of injection of relief. I know it probably happens still in the Third World. And I know we still have horrible housing projects and starving people. But do you think the scale is this bad, or is it the same (or worse) but without the migration and displacement we’re reading about here?

  • I think it is as bad. We have an epic amount of poverty in this country with a similar amount of hatred and mistrust of the poor. Everything that’s being played out now in politics right now is this exact same thing. I don’t know if we have the same amount of actual starvation, but the poverty related

  • Sorry… Technical difficulties. We have an amazing amount of illness and issues that are directly related to poverty. The discrepancy between rich and poor is larger than it has ever been. Meanwhile, politicians are insisting on more cuts to “entitlements.”

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