The Grapes of Wrath Readalong: Part the Third

This is the third post for a readalong of The Grapes of Wrath hosted by Laura at Devouring Texts.

This section contained what might be my favorite scene of the novel so far (except for maybe the turtle, because who doesn't love the damn turtle?P): the scene with the little kids scaring each other about the toilet, not understanding how it works:
"Winfield was embarrassed. His hand twisted the flushing lever. There was a roar of water. Ruthie leapt into the air and jumped away. She and Winfield stood in the middle of  the room and looked at the toilet. The hiss of water continued in it. 'You done it,' Ruthie said. 'You went an' broke it. I seen you.'"
Ain't that hilarious? Can't you just picture the two of them in a room full of toilets, and bossy Ruthie giving Winfield a hard time about the water in the toilet, not understanding? And can you imagine what it must be like to encounter a toilet for the first time, not knowing what it is or how it works?

It's a good thing we get a bit of humor, because the rest of this section felt thick with sadness, as the realization that there really is no work settles down upon the Joads:
"Tom looked about at the grimy tens, the junk equipment, at the old cars, the lumpy mattresses out in the sun, at the blackened cans on fire-blackened holes where the people cooked. He asked quietly, 'Ain't there no work?'"
And even when they find relief in the government camp, complete with running (hot!) water, there is a sense of doom and gloom that seems to hang over the people there, the idea that their stay is temporary, meant to end, and a constant, nagging knowledge that work is not available no matter where they turn.

And the persistent hunger that seems to haunt each family, the hunger that the Joads have not yet known but we are quick to gather they will know, someday not too far away, and Steinbeck's ranting and raving about the food that grows and goes to rot because it cannot be profitable, while not a mile away, children die of starvation and the coroners lie on the death certificates and make up causes of death. Oh, Ruthie and Winfield, I hope you live.

When they do settle into the government camp, fortunate enough to have found a spot after weeks on the road and days spent being mocked and taunted by locals, Ma (still my favorite, really) is able to think, really think, about all that has happened:
"Funny, ain't it. All the time we was a-movin' an' shovin,' I never thought none. An' now these here folks been nice to me, been awful nice; an' what's the first thing I do? I go right back over the sad things--that night Grampa died an' we buried him. I was all full up of the road, and bumpin' and movin', an' it wasn't so bad. But now I come out here, an' it's worse now. An' Granma-an' Noah walkin' away like that! ...I didn't give 'em brain room before, but now they're a-flockin' back. An' I oughta be glad 'cause we're in a nice place."

I've been afraid Ma would break, and now I'm even more afraid, that after all of the hardness and meanness she and the Joads have seen in the people around them, she will break under the sadness of the world and of her broken family. But then Pa steps in and they remember together and Ma snaps back to herself and makes "somepin nice" for the family and probably helps Rosasharn stop crying (again) and everything else she does.

Is anyone else struck by the continued importance of the issues that Steinbeck raises, albeit not-so-delicately at times? There are certain parallels that one could draw between the small farmers and the big corporate farmers of the 1930s with the small businesses and the big corporate businesses of 2012. And though we may not like to admit it, the Californians fear of the "damn Okies" doesn't sound so far off from the issues of immigration we face in the United States today.

And so, on to the last quarter of the book. I'm still scared of what is going to happen to the Joads, with the threat of violence and hunger and otherwise painful deaths in the air. Don't worry, I have ice cream and tissues at the ready.


Thoughts from other bookworms:

Devouring Texts
What Red Read


The Grapes of Wrath | John Steinbeck | Originally published 1939 | 619 pages | Buy from an independent near you


  1. The thing that's so scary is not even that there are some parallels to how farming works in 2012, but that it's almost exactly the same. If I wrote in books I would have circled the paragraphs about the poor farmers picking fruit then. Instead I put a bunch of post-it notes on that page.

    That Fey/Poehler gif is THE BEST. And so accurate. I don't know how Ma doesn't break but she is by far the strongest person.

    1. Good point! I do write in my books and have all kinds of circles and underlines and notes like, "This farm company sounds like the Amazon of independent bookstores."

  2. Ruthie and Winfield and the toilet! That was the best. I love how she had to go wake him up because she was too scared to explore the bathroom by herself. PLEASE DON'T STARVE, CHILDREN.

    And YES about the immigration parallels. We still have that mentality of "This is mine, and you'll ruin it." And then the issue of people willing to do cheap labor wrecking the curve for everyone else. It's totally still true, and WHY haven't we figured out a solution to this yet?

    1. Exactly! If we could just get some economics people figuring out this whole work-for-cheap issue, that'd be great. Economists? Anyone?

  3. Dude, I am SO down with the big farming-big businesses now analogy. I'm just scared of how much bigger these companies can get, until there's just one GIANT company and we all have to work for it. Scary stuff.

    Love love loved the toilet scene so much! Cause, let's face it, I think we all needed a bit of humour!

    And and and that Ma quote is amazing! Like, I totally get it because I believe it has happened to me, because you can be FINE while you need to be, but it'll eventually catch up on you and then you *have* to think about it and then it's sad.

    1. Yes! Have you read Atwood's The Year of the Flood or Oryx and Crake? The world she has created in those novels is pretty much a not-so-distant future of our current world in which corporations really have taken over and become like their own little governments, and everyone works for one of them, or else. Pretty much. There's a lot more to them than that, because Atwood is smarter than my brief summary will contain.

      And I've had Ma's delayed reaction to bad news happen, too -- if you can hunker down on a project or work or necessity of any sort, it's fine, but as soon as you slow down even a little, it all comes rushing in. Awful feeling, that.

    2. I should add that Ma handles it better than I generally do, and she has much larger issues to deal with (like sleeping with the dead body of Granma to cross state lines).

  4. "And though we may not like to admit it, the Californians fear of the "damn Okies" doesn't sound so far off from the issues of immigration we face in the United States today."

    OMG YES. Remember how people are considered "reds" and "vagrants" for trying to get government relief in Grapes of Wrath? It's so much like how certain politicians today go on and on about how undocumented workers shouldn't have access to even basic healthcare. Ugh.

    I'm really scared for Ruthie and Winfield, too. I want to reach into the book and give them hugs and a healthy meal.

    1. Yes! And how the Okies are made out to be these lazy, good-for-nothing drags on the world, when really all they want to do is work hard and feed their families?

  5. I quoted to my brothers this morning this thing, which totally reminded me of Romney's 47% comment:

    "They was a little fella, an' he says, 'What you mean, relief?'"

    "I mean relief — what us taxpayers put in an' you goddamn Okies takes out."

    "'We pay sales tax a' gas tax an' tobacco tax,' this little guy says. An' he says, 'Farmers get four cents a cotton poun' from the
    gov'ment—ain't that relief?' An' he says, 'Railroads an' shippin'
    companies draws subsidies—ain't that relief?'"



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