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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

THE STORY CHAPTER 20

Granma's body is taken to the coroner in town and, for a five-dollar fee, buried in the local potter's field. With about forty dollars left in the world, the Joads will almost literally start from scratch in California.

Their first objective: find work. How do you find work in a strange place? There are no employment agencies or classified ads for migrant laborers. So you get a job the old-fashioned way- by good luck or by asking around.

Driving out to the country, the family sees a settlement of tents and shacks, and prepares to camp for the night. The place is a mess. As Steinbeck tells us, it's "hung with slovenly repair." Welcome to Hooverville, Joads!

NOTE: Why Hoover-ville? Hundreds of rundown, rusted, litter-strewn towns of poor people were named with bitter humor in "honor" of President Herbert Hoover, the person widely held responsible for leading the U.S. into the Great Depression.

Once the Joads' tent is up, Ma prepares to cook a stew for the family. The smell of cooking attracts a ragged crew of children, who gather around the fire hoping for a handout. The children are hungry, but there's only enough stew for the family. What is Ma to do? Feed the children and deny her family, which she values more than anything in the world? Whatever she decides, someone will go hungry.

Forced to make the painful choice, she doles out small portions to her family and leaves the near-empty stew pot for the children to scrape out. Moments later, however, her kindness backfires. The mother of a little boy storms over to Ma. "You kin he'p me by mindin' your own children an' lettin' mine alone." Her voice shakes with fury. "Don' you go a-boastin' and a-braggin' about havin' stew. Don' you do it. I got 'nuf troubles 'thout that."

If you've ever had a generous gesture of yours misinterpreted, you'll understand Ma's feeling of helplessness as the angry woman stalks away. Next time Ma feels the impulse to help a stranger, she may think twice. On the other hand, we know that she probably won't be deterred by one setback.

In the meantime, Tom tours Hooverville and stops to talk with Floyd, a young resident of the town. Floyd hands Tom about the worst piece of news imaginable. There's no work to be had around here. As soon as he can grind his car's valves, Floyd aims to drive out of the area. Maybe north, where there's a rumor of jobs.

Everything else that Floyd tells Tom is discouraging, too. When there is work a hundred men show up for a single job, lured by the promise of a decent wage. But the employers break their word and offer much less. If you refuse to work for a pitiful fifteen cents an hour, that's your problem. When your kids are hungry, though, and you're out of gas, you have no choice, do you?


Twice, we learn later, Floyd has been deceived by the promise of good pay. He advises Tom not to waste gas going to a work site unless he's signed a contract with the hiring agent for a set wage.

Another thing: When fruit ripens, it must be picked immediately. So, the orchards hire hundreds of workers for a week or two. When picking's over, they don't want you hanging around. They kick you out and move you along.

Tom has a thought about the ripe fruit. If all the workers got together and refused to work for low pay, the fruit would rot. "Wouldn' be long 'fore the price went up, by God!"

Tom is talking about a strike, of course. A strike may be a new idea to Tom, but not to Floyd, who lists all the tactics that the owners are using to keep workers in line. They throw strike leaders in jail. They place "stools" [stool pigeons] in the migrant camps to report troublemakers. Talk out of turn and you're blacklisted; you'll never work again.

By now we know Tom well enough to predict his reaction. True to form, Tom vows not to let himself be pushed around. But if you get tough with a cop, Floyd tells him, you'll end up dead in a ditch. If Tom knows what's good for him, he'll keep his mouth shut- no matter how hard it may be to do so.

We don't have to wait long for Tom's self-control to be tested. Two official-looking men- a contractor and a deputy sheriff- drive into the camp and announce the need for fruit pickers in Tulare County. Floyd speaks up. He wants to know if the men are hiring the pickers or just collecting as many as they can. He also demands to know the wage they'll pay. The men don't like Floyd's attitude. "He's talkin' red, agitating trouble," one says to the other. They invent a reason to arrest Floyd: he looks like someone who broke into a used-car lot in town last week.

Angrily, Tom interferes. "You got nothin' on him," he says. The deputy tells Tom to keep his "trap shut" and orders Floyd into the car.

Suddenly, Floyd smashes the deputy with his fist and makes a break for it. Tom trips the deputy and sends him sprawling. The deputy pulls a gun. He takes aim at Floyd, but Casy steps from the crowd and knocks the man out with a kick in the neck.

The residents of Hooverville know that this incident will provoke some retaliation. The place will be burned to the ground. Tom is in danger of being arrested for helping Floyd. In the heat of the moment, he had evidently forgotten his own status as a fugitive. Or had he? Possibly he's already driven by the impulse to help others, even if he pays the price of his own freedom.

But it's Casy who goes to jail. As the police sirens approach the camp, Casy decides to take the blame for Tom. "I ain't doin' nothin' but set aroun'," he says. The family needs Tom, but it doesn't need him. Anyway, he owes the Joads for bringing him along to California. All these arguments may be true to some extent, but the basic reason for Casy's self-sacrifice remains unspoken. Casy doesn't have time to explain, before he's hauled away in the police car, that he's found his way to show love for his fellow man. No one can now accuse Casy of being all talk and no action.

Uncle John is so moved by Casy's act of martyrdom that he blurts out a confession. He's been holding out $5 from the family coffers to get drunk when he got "to hurtin' inside." Pa and Ma understand John's need. They let him keep $2 for a binge. John gratefully goes off to drink away his sadness.

Connie goes off, too, but not to drink. He runs away from the family, never to return. California has let him down. His dream of owning a pretty house and getting a good job has been shattered by Hooverville. "If I'd of knowed it would be like this I wouldn' of came," he says to his wife. Even Rose of Sharon, who frets and whines through most of the book, has a reservoir of strength to help her endure. To Connie, she says, "You ain't givin' it up!" But Connie does give up and sneaks away alone. Pa, not one to mince words, has the final say on Connie: "Didn' have no guts... all the time a-sayin' what he's a-gonna do. Never doin' nothin'."

Leaving Hooverville just a step ahead of the flames, the Joads' truck carries two fewer passengers than when it arrived. Of the eight people left in the clan, Ma ought to be the most disheartened. After all, she's been trying the hardest to maintain her family. But oddly, it is she who bolsters the others.

When a mob of armed toughs on the road stops the truck, Tom almost explodes in fury. Ma holds him back. Later, Tom laments, "They're a-tryin' to make us cringe an' crawl like a whipped bitch. They tryin' to break us." Ma's response is a simple, but eloquent, statement of encouragement. You might even call it a pledge of faith in the people. "Why, Tom-," she says, "us people will go on livin' when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people- we go on."

NOTE: How can Ma keep this promise alive in spite of terrifying odds? How heavy must her burdens be before she breaks? Is it really possible to endure any hardship and still go on? These are questions that will surely be answered in the remainder of The Grapes of Wrath.  

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© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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