Along the Way
By the time the Joads reach the promised land of California, very little has turned out as intended. Granma and Grampa are dead. Noah Joad has run off to live in a river for some reason. There’s no work to be found. The preacher was arrested. The cops are pricks. (Nothing too unusual about that, actually.) The promise has been broken. As Floyd Knowles explains to Tom in Chapter 20, the work needed in the area had been over-advertised, often bringing twice as many people in than were needed, allowing the owners to pay far less per hour than what a family might need to stave off starvation and find a home. How true any of that is is questionable, as Keith Windschuttle points out in the essay, “Steinbeck’s Myth of the Okies,” wherein he states that many migrants made their way west already knowing what was in store for them, as they were in contact with friends or relatives in many areas that informed them of the conditions. It certainly makes for an engaging read, though. Windschuttle also makes note of something else that caught my attention in Steinbeck’s narrative. As the family rolls through the Southwest and into California, they encounter numerous temporary communities, an aspect of the migration to which Steinbeck dedicates multiple chapters. Every night, groups were setting up camp, all with the intention of breaking it back down in the morning to get back on the road, to find work in the promised land of California. I couldn’t help but wonder, however, why these families didn’t band together at any point to search out work along the way. Every family seemed to form such a strong bond over their shared dream of prospering out west, why was it so easy for them to just disperse and keep on? Surely, a farm somewhere between Sallisaw, near Oklahoma’s eastern border, and Bakersfield, CA, needed men for at least a short-term job. After all of the “it’s not so great but go on and see for yourselves” horror stories, why not try to find some extra cash along the way – or maybe even something permanent? As Windschuttle points out, that’s exactly what some travelers did. “[Migrants] planned their journey to coincide with the Arizona cotton-picking season. Others who were less well organized nonetheless found plenty of agricultural employment along the way in the newly developed irrigation fields of the desert state. In the 1930s, Arizona acquired thousands of new citizens in this way.” This makes far more sense to me than Steinbeck’s romantic portrayal of the listless wandering clan making their way out west with more hope in their hearts than money in their pockets. Again, though, as a dramatic interpretation of the events, it’s all very exciting.