Grapes of Wrath

Migrant Mother - Florence Owens Thompson - 1936

By Judy Berman

My role model is a paroled prisoner, an unrepentant killer.

After four years in prison on a manslaughter charge, his concerns were only for “today.”

Time and life’s experiences shifted Tom Joad’s focus from selfish self-interest to helping others in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

He is one of the reasons I root for the underdog – personally and when I was a reporter.

The politics and social injustice that existed when the book was written have changed. But the book still resonates 75 years after its publication on April 14, 1939.

Like many families in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, the Joads are forced to leave Oklahoma. A drought turns their land into a “Dust Bowl” and renders it useless to grow crops and to make a living.

Landowners and banks evicted tenant farmers. Some homes are torn down by tractors, leaving residents with nowhere to go.

They’re told that there are jobs in California. Before they can get to the Promised Land, they are taken advantage of by crooked car salesmen and dishonest pawnbrokers when they try to sell their belongings to pay for transportation and for their trip.

Migrant worker's family, Nipomo, California

Defeated, they pack what possessions they can and drive down Route 66 in rickety cars and trucks to California where they – and thousands of others – head to migrant camps in search of work.

Life on the road is hard and fraught with danger. The Joads and others are treated with hostility because so many Okies are flooding into California and there’s not enough work for them. Some are starving.

Ma Joad, the family’s strength, believes that helping others will be rewarded. While there is greed, she has also witnessed kindness from strangers. She repays that by feeding some of the starving migrant children at the camp.

Early on, Tom Joad and Jim Casy, a family friend and ex-preacher, begin to wonder why the tenant farmers aren’t organizing a union to fight the injustices of poverty wages and harsh treatment at migrant camps.

They’re told that if they do organize a protest that they will be black-listed from the camps. That means they’ll never find work.

When the Joads settle in at the Weedpatch camp, a government-sponsored place, it appears their luck has changed for the better. But trouble still follows them.

A Farmers’ Association plans to sabotage the camp. They fear that the Okies are a threat to their way of life.

Work is again hard to find. The migrant workers are paid far less than promised and it’s not enough to feed their families. Casy urges them to strike.

Their protest is met with violence and motivates Tom to work for the community’s good. He’s on the run.

Ma Joad fears she won’t see him again. Before they part, Tom comforts her and vows to continue to fight injustice wherever he finds it.

“I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be everywhere – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry ‘n’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.”

My colleagues at the Observer Dispatch in Utica, New York, paraphrased that quote to reflect on my career at the paper.

It’s a comparison I’ll cherish always.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-15. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider,, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Movie clip – Grapes of Wrath (1940) – Famous “I’ll Be There” speech in the movie by Tom Joad (Henry Fonda)  

Video – John Steinbeck and Grapes of Wrath –  

Photo – Migrant Mother (1936) – Florence Owens Thompson – (Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.) Photo by Dorothea Lange, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Photo – Migrant worker’s family – Photography of Florence Owens Thompson, known as “Migrant Mother”, Pea-Pickers Camp, Nipomo, California.  Photo taken 1936 by Dorothea Lange

  1. What an honor that they chose this quote to memorialize you! This was fantastic post to read and learn more about the background to the “Grapes of Wrath” which I did love. But you know it is a simple book, my favorite one is called (I think!) “The Red Pony.” It was one I read in middle school! Thanks for this lovely read today! Smiles, Robin

    1. The farewell mock paper the O.D. put together for me had a story that included many movie quotes – of which I am a fan – and the paraphrased quote from “Grapes of Wrath.” Here it is: “Wherever there’s news, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s an abused child crying, I’ll be there. In the noisy rolling of the presses and the joyous shouts of people who have had wrongs righted, you’ll hear my voice. And wherever there’s a good story to be told, I’ll be there.”

      I haven’t read “The Red Pony.” Will have to check it out. Thanks for your comments, Robin.

      1. I was looking for the paraphrase–thanks for posting it. What a tribute to you!

        I think there’s a tendency today to, in the name of “tolerance,” overlook and even excuse injustice. These things cycle, I know, and I’m feeling a rising power that is something like the optimism of the 1960’s, the sense that somebody has to (we just have to) make the stories known!

        comment from earthrider to Tracy Lee Karmer:
        Tracy, I’m glad you liked the quote that O.D. staffers wrote in the mock newspaper story. It felt self indulgent to include it. But I really was touched by what they wrote. Among the stories I wrote on my beat were stories about abuse – injustice to children, adults and animals. That’s very tragic and challenging to report on. They do need a voice so that someone can, hopefully, step in and stop the abuse. I was quite surprised that some of the people I interviewed wrote me a thank you note – and on two occasions – sent me flowers. It made me cry – but in a good way. It was very sweet and thoughtful of them to let me know. 😉

  2. Sounds a horrific story, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live under circumstances like that! I’ve heard of The Grapes Of Wrath but not as a film, and I’d forgotten that it was a John Steinbeck novel. I’ve yet to read his books, he’s on my wish list, because I’ve taken a look at some of his novels and I really love his style, he has an excellent way of describing the characters, they really come alive – I like that in a novel.

    Perhaps that’s why he was asked to write this story, they knew he’d tell it well. There are elements of this story that remind me of the potato famine in Ireland, different reasons for their suffering, but there are some similar harrowing stories. No matter how we suffer today, most of us are living very cushy lives compared to our ancestors, we don’t realise what luxury we live in until we read a story like this, or how much they suffered for us to even exist! Thanks for reminding me Judy – I need to buy some John Steinbeck books, and perhaps I’ll go for this one first! 🙂

    1. From my Mom’s stories about the Great Depression, it was hard times for many folks. But it seems it was especially hard on farmers who were uprooted and desperate to find work to feed their families. My Grammy was part Irish and I also heard about the Potato Famine in Ireland. Definitely a lot of suffering there, too. Yes, we are far luckier today.

      I’ve read a few of John Steinbeck’s books: “Of Mice and Men,” “The Pearl” and “Cannery Row.” He is pitch-perfect in his portrayal of the scenes and the people. One book I would like to read of his: “Travels with Charley.” “Grapes of Wrath” – both the book and the movie are excellent. I hope you get to read and see it soon. 😉

  3. The photo in your introduction is very familiar as is the novel by Steinbeck. I remember team-teaching a unit on this period with a history professor, pairing literature with the events of the Depression-era. As always, a great message.

    1. John Steinbeck produced “The Harvest Gypsies” articles that included photos of migrants taken by Dorothea Lange from Oct. 5 to 12, 1936. Whether they ever met, I do not know. But their impact was significant in shining a spotlight on what was happening to migrant workers. Team teaching this with a history professor had to be an excellent experience. I’m glad you liked the story.

  4. My “other” Steinbeck role model is George in OF MICE AND MEN. I’m embarrassed to admit that my first college semester as an English major, I had never heard of or read anything by John Steinbeck. In southeast KS his books had been banned from the school curriculum. I didn’t admit this to my college professor or any students; I went to the college library and began reading all of Steinbeck’s books, one by one, secretly, in addition to all my other course work. To this day, Steinbeck’s writings are at the top of my list.

    1. Why were his books banned in Kansas? I know that some felt he portrayed the migrant workers in a negative light. I do think that Steinbeck gave the migrant workers dignity and tried to do the same with his other characters as well.

      When I think of Lennie in “Of Mice and Men,” I have to think of the parodies done by Bugs Bunny (Warner Brothers) and many others. I’m glad you enjoy his writings as I do as well.

  5. To have that as a going away thought as you were leaving must have been satisfying, yet maybe it made you feel sorry to be leaving?
    That first photograph is a favorite of mine. I think it sums up the time period but also could speak to many of other times of suffering.

    1. Amy, I did have mixed emotions when I was leaving. They were a great group.

      That photo really does portray the sadness and desperation that folks felt then. She looks so much older than 32. Worried about her young uns. That would do it for me, too.

  6. Powerful, timeless with so many lessons to teach today. I hope to watch this soon. People nowadays easily forget the hardships and struggles of old in search for a better life, of a promised land till today so many are looking for. Sad that in reality there are people out there without conscience and will take advantage of others who are helpless, trusting and naive. Someone I knew the feeling of having your dream torn away from you. To realize not all who offer their help have you in their best interest. I learned the hard way when I first ventured in California 11 years ago. Take care my friend. All the best!

    1. When I think of “Grapes of Wrath,” I think of folks like my parents who grew up during the Great Depression. They were hard working people with a lot of pride who didn’t want to accept handouts. I think the Okies were like that, too. Just trying to make a living, have a home for their family to be sheltered and feel safe. It is sad that any one would try to take advantage of innocent people who are struggling to survive. I’m sorry that you experienced that years ago, Island Traveler. Best wishes to you and your family. 😉

    1. It’s an excellent movie, Lisa. Terrific performances by: Henry Fonda (Tom Joad), John Carradine (Casy – movie reference spells this as ‘Casey’), Jane Darwell (Ma Joad). The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards – and won two of them: Best Director Oscar and Best Supporting Actress to Jane Darwell as Ma Joad.

  7. I forgot in my comment to say it is a Steinbeck book that the first 3 chapters were in a magazine! Thanks for saying you may check it out. I like that you completed the post with describing the movie to Lisa! I have not seen it in such a long time, I should check it back out of the library! Smiles, Robin

    1. Thank you for letting me know about “The Red Pony,” Robin. I do have a few books to read before that one, but knowing it was written by Steinbeck makes it a must read. Hope you do get to see the movie again. 😉

  8. I think this is wonderful to remind us of John Steinbeck’s book. I heard this on CBS Sunday Morning, news cast. Take care and hope you have a wonderful Easter, too! Thanks for your comments on my post, Judy! Smiles, Robin

    comment from earthrider to reocochran (Robin):
    At Robin’s request, I edited her comment. Robin, I also wish you a happy Easter. I appreciate your comments as well. 😉

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