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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

THE STORY CHAPTER 24

Getting ready for the Saturday night dance, the camp hums with activity. The dance is a big event. For a few hours each week, migrants from the government camp and from the squatters' camps come together, shed their worries, and have a good time.

This night is different, of course. The camp committee has been tipped off that there's going to be trouble, but they have a plan to deal with it. Guards have been posted at the gate and around the camp's perimeter. Suspicious-looking characters will be carefully watched. At the first sign of an argument, 20 strong young men will converge on the instigators and sweep them right out of the place.

The crowd gathers, the music and dancing start. The young men and girls whoop it up. Ma Joad and Rose of Sharon have come to see the dancing. The older men, like Pa, separate from the throng and spend the evening in conversation. As you might expect, they talk of jobs, of low wages, and problems of feeding their families. They exchange news about such things as a working man being arrested for "vagrancy" because the cop didn't like him, and bosses replacing "two-bit" men with 20-cents-an-hour men on the job.

When Pa intimates that he'd work for 20 cents rather than not work at all, a man called Black Hat lashes out: "You'll do that. An' I'm a two-bit man. You'll take my job for twenty cents. An' then I'll git hungry an' I'll take my job back for fifteen."

"Well, what the hell can I do?" asks Pa. "I can't starve so's you can get two bits."

Doesn't this brief exchange define the questions that every migrant has to ask himself: Do I work for less than the going rate and put a fellow-migrant out of a job? Or do I let my family go hungry?


Later in the evening, Black Hat offers a suggestion that will make such impossible-to-answer questions irrelevant. Unions! If the workers form unions, they can get what they want. To illustrate his point, he tells about workers in rubber plants in Akron, Ohio. Townspeople were yelling "Red" and getting ready to run the union right out of Akron. The workers, however- all 5000 of them- marched through town with rifles, and as Black Hat tells it, "they ain't been no trouble sence then."

Black Hat's story moves his listeners, but they don't know if poor and hungry migrant farm workers in central California could ever form themselves into a union.

Halfway through the evening's dance, though, we see what strong men working together can do. A guard reports two carloads of men with guns waiting in the dark outside the camp. Jule, a camp guard at the gate, spots three intruders, young migrant men hired to stir up trouble. One starts to pick a fight over a girl. The alerted squad grabs all three and hurries them into the darkness. Under orders not to harm the men, although they have every right to do so, the squad releases them at the edge of the camp.

Meanwhile, deputies ride up to the gate and demand to be admitted.

"Got a warrant?" the gatekeeper asks.

"We don't need a warrant if there's a riot."

"We got no riots here." Indeed, the only sound the deputies hear in the camp is the foot-stomping beat of good country music.  

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