Chapter 21

There seems to be such a disconnect between the hungry migrant men and the owners of crop producing land, between migrants and the rest of society.

Entire families of farmers, after living a simple agrarian life, where everything they had was coming from the land and the work done on the land, were pushed out by machines that they did not understand. They started to live the migrant life and they started to change.

Hungry Children

 Steinbeck describes what changes them: the highways, the camps along the road, the fear of hunger and the hunger itself, the children going to bed without dinner, the endless moving, the hostility against them and the sight of a land of plenty that they cannot cultivate.

Steinbeck also depicts  the panic of the “men of property”, fearing the “flare of want” in the eyes of the migrants. They rationalize their fears and their actions by giving migrants bad reputation, arming themselves in “self-defense” with clubs, with gas, and with guns.

What is also described are the consequences of the disappearance of small farms, where farmers worked to provide for themselves, and the rise of large scale crop production operations, financed by banks and managed as a business.

Published in: on February 15, 2010 at 11:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Chapter 20

Bull-simple: what an unusual word! It could not be found in the Merriam Webster and Oxford dictionaries, or Wikipedia. It is a slang word from the 1930s, and here are some definitions from the University of Southern Queensland, the Swing Gang from Tampa, and a fitness forum websites.

  • ‘Bull’ in the term comes from authority figures, such as policemen or strike breakers, who were employed to literally thump any oppositional voices during this time. Likened to the big, brainless and brawny animal, the bull, this label soon created the term ‘bull-simple’. Bull-simple in fact refers to those people who were bullied into silence and thus sometimes appeared ‘simple’ in their own defenses.
  • Fearful of cops
  • Act simple and think simple.

Tom receives this advice: “Well, when the cops come in,  a’ they come in all a time, that’s how you wanta be. Dumb – don’t know nothin’. Don’ t understand nothin’. That’s how the cops like us. Don’t hit no cops. That’s jus’ suicide. Be bull-simple.”

Later, Tom’s sensitivity makes him say: “When a bunch a folks, nice quiet folks, don’t know nothin’ about nothin’, somepin’s goin’ on.”

In Hooverville, name given to the migrant camps that sprang up around the country, the Joads talk to other people on the road, about what matters the most to them, jobs!  

The ones who have been around longer seem to have encountered only deceit:  the jobs they found were of short duration, with wages below what was advertised and not sufficient to feed them and their kids properly. A young man, Floyd, asks Tom a question: “Know what they was payin’, las’ job I had? Fifteen cents an hour. Ten hours for a dollar an’ a half, an’ ya can’t stay on the place. Got to burn gasoline gettin’ there.”

The men are skeptical when visitors come in the camp and offer them to work in Tulare County. One of the visitors is a contractor, the other one a deputy sheriff.

Deputy Talking

The migrant men want to know what the wages are. Floyd asks the visitors to show their license, to give them an order to go to work, when and where, to tell them how much they will get, and to sign a contract. He warns people in the camp to get numbers in writing.

The contractor and the deputy do not like Floyd’s attitude. I am surprised that they label him as a “goddamn red”, a troublemaker, a communist. What I see is not political. What I see is a man who has been forced on the road by the Great Depression, who found out that jobs were scarce, that wages were bid down, and that the money he made was not sufficient to feed himself and buy gas to wait for and go to the next job. And I see an angry man who does not want to accept the terms that are proffered.

With Floyd asking critical questions and people in the camp being silent and unresponsive to their offer, the two visitors order them out of the camp by the morning. The deputy wants to force Floyd into the car. Things get out of control: a firearm is used, a woman loses her fingers, the deputy falls on the ground, Floyd and Tom flee, and the contractor drives away.

People in the camp now know that they will be forced out. The Joads and others decide to move away during the night and go to Santa Clara Valley; they heard that there is work there. The more destitute will stay behind. 

When Rose of Sharon leaves the camp, Connie is not with her anymore.

Published in: on February 15, 2010 at 9:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Chapter 19

Men have ferociously wanted land in California.  American squatters took the land from Mexicans and broke the grants, fighting over them: “Possession is ownership.” From squatters they became owners “and they guarded with guns the land they had stolen”.

With abundant Chinese, Japanese, Mexican and Filipino labor, the new farmers became businessmen, more interested in making or losing money than growing crops. Only the best “businessmen” became owners of the big farms.

Steinbeck describes how the owners and their workers hate the 300,000 dispossessed people on the road to California. They consider them as foreign, despite the fact that they are seventh generations Americans, and beyond that Irish, Scottish, English, German, and on both side of the Civil War.

It seems that nobody foresaw the drought and the economy changing: no plans existed to deal with the great number of displaced people, “frantic people running like ants to pull, to push, to lift, to work.” Owners are afraid that migrants become the new squatters, trying to take their land. Furthermore, faced with the wave of hungry newcomers, the owners decide to use repression to destroy their revolt, instead of considering the causes of the revolt. 

Steinbeck highlights the different needs: “things, accumulation, social success, amusement, luxury, and a curious banking security” for the owners and “land and food” for the migrant men.

In the light of the problems created with this massive exodus, the government created a federal agency, the Resettlement Administration. Between April 1935 and December 1936, it relocated struggling urban and rural families to communities planned by the federal government. It became the Farm Security Administration and operated until 1942.

 Map of Proposed Location of Initial Camps


Poster from the Rehabilitation Administration


Chapter 18

The Joads’ flight from Oklahoma was a flight from drought and eviction. As they cross Arizona and California, their flight becomes a flight from the sun, from the dangers of the desert and from those you consider migrants indesirable.

 On the Road

The Joads, after several encounters with desillusioned migrants, come to the realization  that they might not be welcomed in California, as expressed by a Californian policeman “We don’t want goddam Oakies settling down”.

Noah decides to stay behind at Needles. The rest of the Joads decide to see California by themselves.

Grandma, weakened by the trip and the exhausting heat, holds on as long as she can but the desert will take her away. Ma, who want to reach the greener side of California, will keep her body next to her, all night, pass the inspection at the agricultural station, without a word to anyone. I wonder if I could have the same determination. For the family, she rationalizes her action: “We couldn’ stop in the desert. There was the young ones an’ Rosasharn’s baby. I tol’ her”…”She can be buried in a nice green place”…” She got to lay her head down in California”.

Chapter 17

“And the worlds were built in the evening. The people, moving in from the highways, made them with their tents and their hearts and their brains.”

In two sentences, Steinbeck depicts the new life of migrant people on the road, trying to make their world safe.

In a time of despair and uncertainty and after being dispossessed of everything they had, the migrant people still have the ability to endlessly recreate a world of their own.

The camps they create each night and tear down each morning are their temporary worlds, made of canvas, a renewed community spirit, shared songs and memories, new rules for the community, and dreams of the new country.

 Migrant  Camps

All the families scattered on the road during the day become one family at night, sharing things and ideas, helping each other and dreaming of the new world, California.

Chapter 16

 Hudson Super Six Engine

Looking at the picture, I wonder where the rod is.

What is a rod anyway?

As Al, Tom and Casy work together to fix the problem with the truck engine, it is hard to understand their dialog, when you are not mechanically inclined. But what a valuable skill they have, in their journey to California.

I wish my husband had that skill… (sigh).

Steinbeck’s keen sense of observation shows again in this chapter, as he describes characters the Joads meet on the road, like the employee in the junkyard :  “The one-eyed man watched them go, and then he went through the iron shed to his shack behind. It was dark inside. He felt his way to the mattress on the floor, and he stretched out and cried in his bed, and the cars whizzing by on the highway only strengthened the walls of his loneliness”.

The Joad family endures the harsh judgment of other men when they are called vagrants, goddamn bums. I like the way Tom stands his ground with the owner of the camp and Pa’s speech about their condition: “It’s dirt hard for folks to tear up an’ go. Folks like us that had our place. We ain’t shif’less. Till we got tractored off, we was people with a farm”.

I sense pride in people who are dealing with awful circumstances.

Published in: on January 26, 2010 at 4:07 pm  Comments (1)  
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Chapter 15

Roadside Restaurant

Along Route 66, in truck stops and hamburger stands, Steinbeck talks about Minnie or Susie or Mae, waitresses middle-aging behind the counter and about Joe, Carl or Al, cooks slapping down hamburgers. Mae is described as the contact, the one that smiles, passing the time of the day indicating great things, great times and great jokes. Al, on the other hand never speaks. He is moody and silent.

Steinbeck also describes the rich travelers stopping at the stands: women with “mouths panting, the eyes sullen, disliking sun and wind and earth, resenting food and weariness, hating time that rarely makes them beautiful and always makes them old” and men “little pot-bellied men in light suits and panama hats; clean, pink men with puzzled worried eyes, with restless eyes”. All the Maes and Als have more sympathy for truckers, their manners and big tips than for the rich travelers that they consider trouble makers.

One of the families going West stops to get water. They want to buy, not a full loaf of bread, but a fifteen cents loaf of bread; that is all they can afford, they have to finish their trip.

However, it is not the contact, smiling Mae who will show first compassion but Al, the quiet one, by asking Mae to give them the entire loaf of bread for fifteen cents. Mae looks to the truck drivers to show them what she was up against. But she will later give the kids two candies for the price of one.

This is the same empathy I have seen in the libraries, that make us forgive a fine, waive printing fees, help someone download a form from the internet or fill out an application. I recently helped a customer find an old court case in another state. His goal was to prove that his past infractions were minor ones. When he left the library, I could see relief on his face.

More on Route 66  in  the San Diego County Library online library catalog.

Published in: on January 19, 2010 at 12:45 am  Leave a Comment  

Chapter 14

Thus far, we’ve only seen the push west through the eyes of the tenant farmers.  But what about the people who were already living in California and had been for generations?  This chapter starts with the words, “THE WESTERN LAND, nervous under the beginning change” of larger governments, new taxes and growing labor unity.   I’m sure it was frightening to see all of the hungry people from the dustbowl coming into the state.  They were willing to work for less money and in some cases they would work in exchange for food.  It was heartbreaking to read about how the children in one of the camps just stood around the Joade’s fire hoping to get fed.  Even though the Ma Joade didn’t have enough food to fill up her own hungry family, she made sure to leave enough in the pot for some of the children to get a stick full.

This chapter also discusses how the banks run everything (not unlike Wall Street today) and how they want tractors on the land, not people.  Just like back then, banks foreclose on properties when people fall behind in their mortgage payments. Today people are run out of their homes just as the Oakies were run off their land.  Steinbeck says “There is little difference between a tractor and a tank.  The people are driven, intimidated, hurt by both.  We must think about this.”  Today the foreclosed houses sit vacant while the numbers of those that are homeless grow.  I see them every day in our libraries and think, there but for the grace of God go I.  I was struck by one line in particular, “hungry for security and yet sensing its disappearance from the earth” which seems to fit the time we are currently living in.

Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 9:46 pm  Comments (1)  

Chapter 13: Human Condition and Solidarity

Along with Hemingway, Victor Hugo and Zola, Steinbeck is one of the great writers about the human condition, about ordinary folks’ joy, laughs, dreams, hopes, fears, pain, doubts, and silent wrath.  His insight on human condition is seen in the description of Pa’s face, forced to flee with the family, against his will: “The old eyes looked up at Ma in pain and bewilderment for a moment before the awareness receded again”. As I am reading, I too feel the old man’s despair.

His insight is seen in the description of the world where Rose (who is pregnant) and her husband live: “The world had drawn close around them, and they were in the center of it, with Connie making a small orbit about her. Everything they said was a kind of secret”.

After Grampa dies from a stroke, Casy, the ex-preacher, agrees to say few words at Granpa’s graveside. What I find interesting is how Casy wants to pray, not for the dead but for the lives of  all the people on the road:” This ol’ man jus’ lived an’ jus’ died out of it. I don’t know whether he was good or bad, but that don’t matter much…And if I was to pray, it’d be for the folks that don’t know which way to turn. Grampa here, he got the easy straight.” He will add:”An’ Grampa didn’ die tonight, he died the minute you took him off the place…He was that place”.

When the Joads meet the Wilsons, the Wilsons have a broken car and do not know what to do. They will devise a plan to lighten the load of the Hudson Super Six sedan,

by transferring some of it to a touring car like the one below. The Wilson’s car will take extra people and light loads and Al will keep the touring car running, as he does with the Hudson.

Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 8:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

Chapter 12: The Mother Road

Highway 66 became the path for all people in flight.

The following comments are from some of the people on the road:

‘Fella in business got to lie an’ cheat, but he calls it somepin else. That’s what important. You go steal that tire an’ you are a thief, but he tried to steal four dollars for a busted tire. They call that sound business”. 

 Would you consider them common sense?

Route 66 Map

 By clicking on the link above and on a U.S. State, you can take a closer look at where the journey took them.

Published in: on January 13, 2010 at 8:13 pm  Comments (1)