Books: Oakies

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THE GRAPES OF WRATH—John Steinbeck—Viking ($2.75).

On California's highways during the last few years a tourist sometimes encounters a mysterious and appalling sight—thousands of jalopies, driven by hungry-faced men, bulging with ragged children, dirty bedding, blackened pots & pans. Hated, terrorized, necessary, they are migrant workers who harvest the orchards and vineyards, the cotton and vegetable fields of the richest valleys on earth. Their homes are filthy squatters' camps on the side roads, beside the rivers and irrigation ditches. Their occupational diseases are rickets, pellagra, dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, starvation, sullen hatred exploding periodically in bloody strikes. Old American stock, they are mostly refugee sharecroppers from the Dust Bowl of the Southwest and Midwest. They are called the "Oakies." There are 250,000 of them—a leading U. S. social problem, and participants in one of the grimmest migrations of history.

The Grapes of Wrath is the Oakies' saga. It is John Ernst Steinbeck's longest novel (619 pages) and more ambitious than all his others combined (Tortilla Flat, In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, et al.). The publishers believe it is "perhaps the greatest modern American novel, perhaps the greatest single creative work this country has ever produced." It is not. But it is Steinbeck's best novel, i.e., his toughest and tenderest, his roughest written and most mellifluous, his most realistic and, in its ending, his most melodramatic, his angriest and most idyllic. It is "great" in the way that Uncle Tom's Cabin was great—because it is inspired propaganda, half tract, half human-interest story, emotionalizing a great theme.

Its central figures are the large Joad family, Oklahoma sharecroppers, who lose their 40-acre farm to the bankers, sell their possessions for $18 to gyp agents, buy an ancient jalopy for $75 from racketeers, head out on Highway 66 for the land of plenty promised in a come-on California handbill. With them — the 13th passenger —goes lanky, philosophizing Preacher Casy, hillbilly Moses turned rustic socialist. Hero of the Joads is tall, homely son Tom, a paroled convict. Heroine is Ma Joad, strong, patient, dreaming of "a white house with oranges growin' around."

The first half of the story takes them to the California line—a 1,500-mile journey of breakdowns, exhaustion, sickness, death (Grampa dies the second day, Granma as they cross the desert), persecution by cops, tourist-camp proprietors, of miseries to make the old pioneers turn in their graves.

In California, hounded by sheriffs and labor contractors, exploited, haunted by starvation, they spend one pleasant period in a Government camp, a self-governing oasis unloved by big absentee growers. Before the season is out, Rose of Sharon's young husband has deserted, her baby is born dead in a filthy tent, Tom is in hiding for killing a vigilante. But Ma Joad says: "We ain't gonna die out. People is goin' on—changin' a little, maybe, but goin' right on."

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