Book Club: ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ chapters 21-25

Courtesy of Center for Steinbeck Studies

My turn to start the “Grapes of Wrath” e-book-club chat this week. As usual, we’d love to hear your thoughts, so post away in the comments.

On Sun, Mar 10, 2013 at 5:43 PM, Jenn wrote:

The first thing that struck me about this section was the waste. Waste of food, waste of resources, waste of men’s lives. And all because of a senseless fear, rooted in the landowners’ greed.

The fields were fruitful, and starving men moved on the roads. The granaries were full and the children of the poor grew up rachitic….And money that might have gone to wages went for gas, for guns, for agents and spies, for blacklists, for drilling. 

It’s no wonder that anger began to ferment among the desperate migrants. If my kids had rickets while untouchable citrus rotted on the ground, I might start talkin’ about a revolution too.

But thank goodness for the government camp. This place is almost too good to be true. I’m so gun-shy by now that I keep waiting for something awful to happen that ruins it for everyone. I nearly cried on Ma’s behalf at the kindness shown by Jim Rawley, the camp manager:

An’ that manager, he come an’ set an’ drank coffee, an’ he says, ‘Mrs. Joad’ this, an’ ‘Mrs. Joad that  —  an’ ‘How you gettin’ on, Mrs. Joad?’ She stopped and sighed. “Why, I feel like people again.”

Makes me think about my seminar with Maya Angelou, many years ago back in college. After we all introduced ourselves, she called on each of us, one by one, to recite the names of every single classmate, addressing them as “Miss…” or “Mr…” We were so flummoxed and couldn’t see the point until Dr. Angelou said, “The greatest gift you can give another human being is to acknowledge their identity.”

Needless to say, our humbled jaws hit the floor.

I keep wondering if the same, simple courtesies were extended by the landowners, how different would the migrants’ outlook be? Would the poverty be bearable if they were just allowed to maintain their humanity?

On Sun, Mar 10, 2013 at 6:07 PM, Brad wrote:

I dunno. Remember, the gas company man Tom finds work with. He treats Tom and his new friends with human respect and a little sympathy — right before he cuts their wages to 20 cents an hour. They’re happy to have the work, but I don’t think they feel like they are being paid their true human worth.

The waste you’re talking about is in chapter 25, too. In fact, it’s almost worse there, where farms are producing too *much* produce and can neither sell it nor give it away without devaluing the rest of the crop.

Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit.

Grim stuff.

The government camp is a nice respite, but the whole thing feels a little too otherworldly to me. The single camp open as they arrive (in the midst of a Hooverville dispersion, no less), the niceness of everyone they meet in the camp, Tom immediately finding work — it’s all a little too good to be true, to me. It’s like that “Star Trek” episode where they seem to have found Eden, until Chekov makes out with a red-shirt and the “dragon guardian” orders them killed and junk. I keep waiting for the dragon, or the man behind the curtain.

If only a tiny percentage of the population can find work, how is it sustainable? This is the first time in the book I find the events a bit unbelievable. And I’m fully aware that this might just be my unwillingness to believe how bad things were, or that if they were that bad, that there could be this oasis of good, unscathed in the middle of it all.

On Sun, Mar 10, 2013 at 6:58 PM, Jenn wrote:

It is hard to believe, but I’m going to take the good where I can find it and not question why or how. Those campers know how good they’ve got it compared to the hundreds of thousands stuck in Hoovervilles, and I love how they pull together to foil the deputy’s attempt to stir up a little disorderly conduct.

When Tom’s team catches the three ne’er-do-wells and questions how they could turn against their own, the response was “Well, goddamn it, a fella got to eat.” Made me have a flashback to the tractor driver in Chapter 5, the one who was making three bucks a day to plow the land, running off twenty families in the process.  It’s bad enough the Okies have to fight the banks and the landowners, but it’s too much when the farmers start turning on each other.

It’s comforting to remember, though, that for those three turncoats, there are hundreds more back in camp who are determined to keep peace and support their brethren. The good always seem to outnumber the bad. Maybe one day, the good will realize that and unite.

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The next assignment: Hallelujah, let’s finish this sucker and read Chapters 26-30 for next Sunday.

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