When Tom Joad came home after four years in prison, his house was empty, and his family was gone. Nearly all the families in the area were gone - driven away by the drought and by poor soil management and by the bank that took their homes.
Tom found his family at the home of his uncle. With no prospects in Oklahoma, they decided to head to California, lured by a handbill's promise of plentiful jobs. The handbill lied. They expected California to be the promised land; but it is a land of broken promises.
John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family across the country to California, where they face unemployment, poverty, and a system designed to keep them down.
The Joads and others like them feel helpless. They are starving and have no source of income, other than an oligarchical system of large farms that reduce wages to poverty levels. They try organizing and they are labeled Communists and beaten by police. They try helping one another, but the authorities harass them and burn their camp. They are angry but have nowhere to direct their anger. Just as the faceless bank foreclosed on their homes in Oklahoma, the faceless farms control their lives in California. There is no person to whom they can appeal or at whom they can lash out.
Steinbeck's writing is straightforward, but beautiful. He paints a very real picture of the world in which he Joads live and travel. He makes us care about an entire class of people - the working poor in this case - and about the individual characters in his story, including:
- Pa Joad, the family patriarch, who cedes leadership to his wife.
- Ma Joad, whose strength holds the family together.
- Jim Casey, the ex-preacher, who has lost his faith; but finds a purpose in life after he is arrested for someone else's crime.
- Tom Joad, who struggles to control his anger because he knows the consequences for himself and his family.
Steinbeck makes one feel the pain of oppression without ever getting preachy. Even the former preacher Casy manages to deliver his message without preaching. The endurance and resilience of the Joads and their repeated frustrations with the system makes the author's points for him. The Biblical parallels are clear, as the Joad’s exodus mirrors the trials of the one led by Moses.
This is one of the great American novels. It is a bleak story of life during the Great Depression - a story of man's inhumanity to man and of man's kindness and resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity. Sometimes the oppressed turn on one another; but more often they face greed with dignity. It is a moving story of community and family; it is a story of hope and disappointment and despair. It is a warning of concentrated power. It is a classic.