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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

THE STORY

CHAPTER 18

At the Arizona state line, the Joads meet their first border guard. The Joads enter Arizona on the condition that they "keep movin'." They do, and finally reach the edge of California. Still to go before they reach the fertile central valleys where workers are needed is the great Mojave Desert. But first they need a rest, and so they pull into a campsite near a flowing river. By the time the Joads break camp later that day, the family will have been altered again.

NOTE: Today, if you travel a major highway there are no guards anywhere, but in the 30s state troopers were placed at border crossings to check the migrants' vehicles for undesirable plants and people. If they didn't like your looks, you were turned away.

To cool off, the Joad men bathe in the river. Two fellow bathers, men on their way back home to Oklahoma, confirm what the ragged man had said: You can't make a living in California.

The two men have decided to return to Oklahoma because it's better to starve to death with friends than with people who hate them. One of them explains: The land in California is pretty as can be, but you can't have any of it. You can't even stop on it, even though it's not being used. That'll make you angry, but what will make you still angrier is the hateful look on people's faces.

Why do Californians hate you? Because they're scared of you. They know that if you're starving you'll do anything to get food. Three-hundred thousand hungry people can stir up a lot of fright, so the deputy sheriffs push you around, and the people call you "Okie" and do everything they can to make you want to go back where you came from.

What a dilemma for the Joads. They can't go back. Yet to go forward could be even worse.


Nevertheless, they must go ahead. "We're a-goin' there, ain't we?" asks Uncle John. "None of this here talk gonna keep us from goin' there." All agree but Noah, the strange firstborn son of the Joads. The prospect of starving in California frightens him so badly that he decides to abandon the family. He'll take his chances by the river, catching fish, making his way in life alone.

You might expect Noah's departure to surprise the family. It doesn't. It was almost expected because, as Tom says, Noah was "a funny kind a fella." But to Ma, Noah's leaving signifies the start of what she hoped would never happen- the break-up of the family.

And a short time later another piece of the "family" breaks off. Sairy Wilson can't go on. She's too sick and weak from a disease that sounds much like cancer, although neither she nor anyone else in the story ever says so. The Wilsons stay behind when the Joads turn westward again.

It's odd, isn't it, that Ma, the mainstay of the Joads, is still unaware of what her menfolk have heard about what awaits them down the road. She gets her first taste of abusive treatment, however, while the men are bathing. While Ma tends to Granma, ailing in the tent, a uniformed trooper barges in. "You can't stay here," he tells Ma. "You're in California, an' we don't want you goddamn Okies settlin' down." Ma is about to smash the man with a skillet, but the word "Okie" stops her cold. It puzzles her, and later makes her weep. Ma has been initiated to life in "the land of milk and honey."

While in the tent, Ma has still another unwelcome caller. Having heard that Granma lay dying, a Jehovite woman stops in. The woman wants to hold a prayer meeting for Granma. Ma resists. Not only is Granma too weak to put up with the howling and jumping of the Jehovites, but Ma no longer has use for the rites and customs of church-going. Casy's philosophy has evidently made a dent in Ma's thinking. Like Tom, Ma may soon be a disciple of Casy's beliefs.

With prospects grimmer than ever before and three fewer people in their company, the Joads move on toward the feared desert crossing. They must cross at night. Daytime temperatures reach 120 degrees. Last stop before the Mojave is Needles, California. As the Joads pull away from the gas pumps, we are privy to a brief conversation between the service-station attendants:

"Jesus, I'd hate to start out in a jalopy like that."

"Well, you and me got sense. Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human.... They ain't a hell of a lot better than gorillas."

If such a comment is typical of what Californians think, how can poor migrant families expect to achieve their dreams of a good, decent life in the Golden State? But a still more pressing question is, how will they survive there?

Crossing the desert takes all night. Connie and Rose of Sharon make love on top of the truck. In the cab, Uncle John confides in Casy. He's trying to figure things out, once and for all. He's not sure, for example, whether he's a help or hindrance to the family. He doesn't know whether he sinned when he let his wife die. Casy gives John advice but no answers. John, like the rest of us, will have to find answers on his own.

Meanwhile, on the back of the truck, Ma lies on the mattress next to Granma. The old woman sleeps fitfully. Ma tries to comfort her: "It's gonna be all right. You know the family got to get acrost [the desert]." Approaching the western edge of the Mojave, the truck must stop for an agricultural inspection. An official orders the truck unloaded. Ma protests, "I swear we ain't got anything! I swear it. An' Granma's awful sick." Ma's intense plea startles her family. A quick look at Granma convinces the officer to let the truck pass. "You can get a doctor in Barstow. That's only eight miles."

In Barstow Ma protests again. "She's awright- awright. Drive on. We got to get acrost." Again, the family puzzles over Ma's peculiar behavior. Is Granma all right or isn't she?

Finally, when the desert lies behind them we learn the truth. Granma is dead. To keep the family going Ma had lain all night next to Granma's body. As she looks around at the great flat valley, green and beautiful, spread out before them, Ma knows she's accomplished her goal. She got Granma to "lay her head down in California," and she got her family across.

NOTE: If you ever doubted Ma's strength, doubt no longer. She'll do anything- literally anything- for her family. In fact, the Joads look in awe at Ma's self-sacrifice. Casy observes in wonder, "There's a woman so great with love- she scares me."  

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