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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

THE STORY CHAPTER 8

Picking up the narrative again, Steinbeck takes us to Uncle John's, where we finally get to meet the Joads in person, all three generations of them.

Grampa and Granma are the oldest. Then come Pa and Ma and Uncle John. The next generation includes Tom and his brothers and sisters: Al, Noah, Rose of Sharon (and her husband, Connie Rivers), Ruthie, and Winfield.

Casy accompanies Tom on the road. He hopes to travel along with the Joads. Can there be any doubt that they will accept him? Although he's another mouth to feed, he's also an able-bodied man and can probably earn his keep. Moreover, the Joads wouldn't turn away their former preacher.

On the way to meet his folks, Tom tells Casy a story about his Uncle John. One day, after four months of marriage, John's young wife complained of stomach cramps. She asked John to call the doctor. He told her that all she needed was some painkiller. The next day, though, the poor girl died of a burst appendix. Is it any wonder, then, that, as Tom says, his uncle is lonely and mean? Later in the book, John goes on drinking sprees. Knowing John's past, you can understand his occasional binges.

Just past sunup Tom and Casy reach John's place. You might think that Tom's family would celebrate the return of the second oldest son. But they don't. The reception, while warm, is not grand. Perhaps the family plight is just too serious at the moment to think of much else. The Joads have been uprooted. They plan to load all their belongings onto an old Hudson and to join the westward migration. They have little money and no real prospects for jobs. Who would not be overcome with worry in such circumstances?

Tom sees his relations one by one. Steinbeck might have shown Tom marching into the thick of the Joads, while, say, the family ate breakfast. Instead, Steinbeck describes Tom's return in another way. Each person greets Tom separately, and we get a glimpse of each member of the family. Let's see what they disclose about Tom's personality.

Pa, whom Tom meets first, is incredulous that Tom is back, but just for an instant. He sees in Tom's return a chance to play a little trick on Ma: he will announce the arrival of a stranger, just to see the look on her face when he recognizes her son.


Ma's reunion with Tom shows a special relationship between mother and son. Tom bites his lip so hard it bleeds. Ma's first words are "Thank God. Oh, thank God." She had been fretting about never seeing Tom again. Ma's response is typical, for she is the family worrier. She carries the family's burdens on her shoulders. She is the healer and the judge. No wonder that Steinbeck calls her the "citadel of the family."

We find that Grampa is a "cantankerous, complaining, mischievous" old man who likes to tell dirty stories. Grampa admires Tom and boasts that no prison is secure enough to hold a Joad. He drinks too much and rarely stops talking or cackling. He bickers constantly with Granma. In spite of his eccentric behavior, though, Grampa is still considered the leader of the Joads. Age, it seems, holds a revered place in their society.

Granma, too, is something of a hellion: crude, loud-mouthed, "lecherous," and "savage," hardly the sweet little old grandmother type. Hearing that Tom has returned, she comes out shrieking, "Pu-raise Gawd fur vittory."

But Granma gets a bigger thrill from seeing Casy. Now there can be prayer meetings and proper grace at mealtime. "I ain't a preacher no more," protests Casy. Granma insists anyway that Casy say grace before breakfast. In Granma's eyes, once a preacher, always a preacher.

Casy obliges. He seems to be living up to his vow to love "the people." Casy's prayer is a personal story about how, like Jesus, he went alone into the wilderness and discovered a new religion for himself and the people. It sounds more like a confession, but that doesn't matter to Granma. For her, it's not the content but the ritual that counts. Do you recall that Casy was driven from religion in the first place by that very point of view?

Tom sees his brother Noah. They exchange cool greetings. Noah's behavior is hard to figure out. He seems remote from the family. Later, we find out why Noah is an outsider: he had had a difficult birth, which evidently damaged his brain.

Rose of Sharon, Tom learns, has married and is pregnant. Tom sees her later that day and notices how in four years she has blossomed from a child to a woman. Tom also meets her husband, Connie, a 19-year-old who acts bewildered by the physical changes in his young wife. Both Rose of Sharon and Connie are preoccupied with the coming baby. Their blushes and giggles when they greet Tom suggest just how young they really are.

Twelve-year-old Ruthie and ten-year-old Winfield greet their brother as they would a stranger. They hardly remember him. Four years is a long time in the life of a child.

Al Joad, Tom's other brother, has grown up, too. His main occupation, we discover, is chasing girls. When Tom arrives, Al hasn't yet returned from the previous night's "smart-alecking." We're told that Al has impressed many girls with the information that his brother killed a man in a fight. Evidently, Al is proud of Tom.

For four years Al has filled in for Tom as the family's second son after Noah. How would you expect a person in Al's shoes to react when his older brother returns? If he is disappointed, he doesn't show it. The only thing that bothers him is that Tom hadn't broken out of prison. By waiting until he was paroled, Tom loses face in Al's eyes, and Al loses something to brag about to the girls.  

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