Friday, November 25, 2011

Life As a Book Report: Grapes of Wrath

I finished Grapes of Wrath a couple of months ago, but haven't yet sat down and given you my review.

I had never read the 'Grapes of Wrath' by John Steinbeck. In high school, we read 'Of Mice and Men' and in middle school, I had read 'The Red Pony.' Honestly, I knew very little about the 'Grapes of Wrath' - other than it was an acclaimed, and 'dangerous' book. ('Dangerous' as people have tried to have the book banned.)

When we were driving "Route 66" during our 'Honey Ride' to Tucson, I became very interested in reading the book. As our guide along what used to be "Route 66," we used a book that highlighted stops along the way from Chicago to California. Reading that book, I learned about the 'Okies.' Realizing, for the first time, that this was a derogatory term given to the native Oklahomans' mass exodus toward the 'promised land' of California during the Dust Bowl/Great Depression.  During our PBS phase this summer, we watched a documentary about the Dust Bowl. Fascinating.

I loved this book. Everyone needs to read it. In fact, I would love to teach a course on "Ag Literacy, Literally" - examining how literature about agriculture, farmers, and farm-life, influences our view. How does it color our beliefs and understanding? Is it more powerful than reality?

First of all, while I knew about the Dust Bowl, I had very little knowledge about the effects of the Dust Bowl on people. Grapes of Wrath highlights the life of the Joad family. The Joad family homesteaded the land that they farmed. For those who are 'Far & Away' fans - they would have been part of the Boomer-Sooners who raced to scoop up 160 acres the government granted to new settlers. Oklahoma was prairie ground. The first few years of cropping the ground yielded abundance because centuries of grassland had built up the organic matter, resulting in rich soil. However, the cropping methods, carelessness and over-zealousness of farmers and investors soon depleted the minerals.

The next generation needed more land to farm in order to turn a profit. Soon, the homesteaders became share-croppers, farming land for absent-owners. Farming and living off the land was all they knew. They were connected to the land. When the droughts came of the late twenties/early thirties, the farmers couldn't pay up. When the winds came, and precious top soil flew thousands of miles away, the tractors came. The land-owners came for their land; replacing tenant-farmers with tractors.  Fliers popped up. These fliers promised paying jobs to those willing to work the fruit & vegetable crops of the West. People contemplated; winds blew more; people decided. They left Oklahoma - Kansas - Texas - by the thousands.

The decision didn't come easily. This life; this land were all they had known. They were connected here - to the land and each other. Families were a unit; neighbors had seen you through it all. There was a deep network of community. Though they had little, their culture was rich. 
They left for a promise - the promise to make a new start - and a new life. If food and jobs are in abundance, then replanting would be easy enough.

I am not going to lay the book out for you. If you know me, you can immediately see why these themes are dear to me. Though I now live in big city in the Southwest, my heart loves rural America. I love the idea of Jeffersonian agrianism - that all should be connected to the land. I love history and policy. I really enjoy learning about the great American (agricultural) experiment.

160 acres - free for the taking. In the Midwest, this allotment of land would have been more than enough (back in the day) for a small farmer. In the arid states, it is not. As stated, over-zealous farmers had little knowledge about caring for this dry land. Utilizing conservation practices started - as a result - of the Dust Bowl. Roosevelt brought folks to the Dust Bowl states to teach these new ideas.

These beginning chapters were not what angered folks to suggest banning Grapes of Wrath. No, the anti-communist movement tried to ban the book based on the suggestion that migrant, agricultural workers needed to organize in order to protect their wages. I am not pro-communism; however, I am pro-person. The living conditions - the hatred - the discrimination - that these Okies endured was apalling. Hope guided them to this 'promised' land; hate met them at the border.

Grapes of Wrath is a fascinating, thought-provoking read. But you don't have to take my word for it! (Right, Lavar?)

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