The novel follows the Joad family, who lose their family farm in Oklahoma during the dust bowl. The eldest son, Tom, returns home from prison (killing a man in self defense) to find his family packing their belongings to head west to California where work and green pastures are promised. Immediately upon leaving, Grampa dies. They bury him the first night in a field because they fear that paying the $40 to have him buried will mean they won’t have enough money to make it to California.
The trip to California is mostly uneventful. They meet and part from friends. Grandma goes downhill very rapidly after Grampa’s death and she dies as they cross the last stretch of desert into the promised land of California. Paying to have her buried cleans out the family of the rest of their money.
The first night in California brings a quick end to any dreams of easy living. The Hooverville, tent town they stay in is visited by a wealthy farmer looking for workers accompanied by a deputy sheriff. When some of the “Okies” looking for work question the farmer about wages, which get lower and lower all the time, the deputy tries to arrest them. A fight ensues. The instigator and Tom both make it out, but the sheriff fires wildly after them and maims a woman. The preacher, Casy, who is traveling with the Joads takes the blame and gets arrested. Later that night they hear that the tent town will be burned by the townspeople in retaliation for talking back to the sheriff. The Joads are able to escape just in time and sneak south to a government camp.
Life in the government camp seems ideal. They are still camping with mattresses on the ground, but there is indoor plumbing (the first flushing toilets for the children), hot water, and respect. The camp forms its own governing body and maintains peace and order. The Joads stay as long as they can, but eventually they run out of work, money, and food. They go north to look for work.
They go to a peach orchard and inadvertently work as scabs against a strike. The owner had wanted to pay only 2.5 cents a box when the workers wanted five cents. The Joads, as scabs, receive five cents a box and are just barely able to buy dinner with the wages earned by four adults picking peaches all afternoon.
Tom sneaks out the first night and discovers that the leader of the strike is none other than the preacher, Casy, who came west with them. He came out of jail with the notion that workers had to unite to get a decent wage and good treatment. The locals catch them and kill Casy for fomenting dissent. Tom snatches up the pick handle and kills the man who killed Casy. Tom gets away but not without earning a broken nose.
When Tom makes it back to camp, the family hides him, and they leave camp. The locals are looking for Tom for killing the man, and Tom broke his parole by leaving Oklahoma. They find work at a cotton plantation and Tom hides out in the wilderness near their camp while his wounds heal. The family is able to eke out a living from picking cotton, but the cotton doesn’t last. More and more pickers arrive every day and there just isn’t enough work for everyone.
At this point, summer is turning to winter and the rains come. The youngest daughter, Ruthie, boasts that her brother is hiding out because he killed a man and that he’ll kill a bully’s older brother. Tom has to leave the family for good to avoid the chance that someone will talk and come looking for him. The oldest daughter, Rose of Sharon, catches a cold and goes into premature labor. Her husband left her the first night in California when it turned out that life wasn’t going to be easy and perfect. Her labor coincides with a flood of the stream they are camped beside. The men team up to try and throw up a levy, but a falling tree destroys their levy and the flat they’re camped on is flooded. The Joad truck is completely flooded and they are stranded in their railroad car at the cotton camp.
Rose of Sharon’s baby is stillborn. The car starts to flood and the family has to build a make shift platform to try and stay warm. After a few more days of constant rain and almost no food, they finally leave their belongings behind to look for drier quarters. They retreat to a barn and find a young boy and his father, who is almost dead of starvation. The man had been giving the boy all the food they had and hadn’t eaten in almost a week. The man has a whispered conversation with Ma, during which it is obvious that he asks for their kindness in taking care of his son after his death. The boy begs them to help. Ma sends everyone away and passes a silent exchange with Rose of Sharon. The novel ends with the girl lying down beside the dying man and offering him her breast milk as a last attempt to save his life.
- Why are all the books on this list so long? So long! I saw Les Miserables in Barnes and Noble the other day. You could probably knock someone unconscious with the thing.
- Steinbeck alternated these sweeping, scene-painting chapters with chapters of actual narrative. I could really have done without the scene painters, especially because they almost all described something in this fancy metaphoric way that happened in the very next chapter, so it was like reading it twice.
- Some of the symbolism in this one was a little too hit-you-over-the-head for me. For example, Grampa dying at the beginning of the journey because he couldn’t leave the land, because it was the end of an era.
- The narrative arc was a bit odd for me. For 95% of the book it appears as though Tom is the main character. Almost all the narrative happens from Tom’s point of view. But then he completely disappears at the end of the novel. Ruthie tells and Ma goes to him and says to leave and then he just vanishes. In the end you’re not sure if the focus changes to Ma or to Rose of Sharon. Ma at least is a strong character throughout—one who actually gains momentum and strength as things get worse and worse. She keeps the family together through sheer force of will. Rose of Sharon on the other hand is a shadowy window dressing for most of the novel and a whiny teenage, pregnant, jilted girl the rest. But Steinbeck plucks her up and uses her as this symbol to end the novel.
- Sidebar: Why did she have to offer her breast to the dying man? Could she not have expressed some milk into a cup? Seriously?
- What I ultimately got from the story is that capitalism, if left untamed by human kindness, is a beast. It consumes resources and drives prices until the will of the people pushes it back. In this case it took the form of “evil” land owners who lured far more workers than they needed to their farms, all of whom were starving, so they could pay them almost nothing. Then when the work ran out or the workers objected to the horrendous pay and conditions, they were brutalized. The government camp, on the other hand, is set up as a paragon of what can be accomplished through mutual cooperation. It’s a commune where the people were self policing and everything was wonderful. I wouldn’t say that it was a pro-communist book, but it was pretty close. The story itself is really pretty heartbreaking as you watch this family get destroyed by hard times. It’s set against a backdrop of social inequity that’s hard to miss. But I was left unfulfilled with the ending. Everything was unresolved and the metaphor of Rose of Sharon as mother to the poor and her stillborn child as the stillborn hopes of migrant workers looking for a better life seemed stilted to me.
Next up, Alice in Wonderland.