Sixty years ago an eager crowd gathered on Chester Avenue in Bakersfield, California to destroy a novel. They cheered as the local farmers dropped the book into bright flames reaching up over the lip of a metal garbage can. They cheered as the pages of the controversial novel were consumed by the fire.
Three weeks after it was published, The Grapes of Wrath exploded on the best seller lists, and since then has sold fourteen million copies. It astounded the nation with a fictional story about a very real experience: 400,000 people leaving the Dust Bowl states of middle America to look for work in California during the Great Depression.
We could have spent days listening to the stories Earl has to tell. It takes little prompting to get him started, and then his enthusiasm for sharing his life history explodes. He has lived through extreme poverty, discrimination and heartache, but has come through these experiences with an amazing attitude and ever-present smile. Irene and I hang on every animated word as he walks us through his past. We laugh and nod and shake our heads in wonder at the life he has led.
Although it was tough to be treated with such contempt, staying in the Dust Bowl would have been tougher. The once-fertile land had literally turned into useless dust. According to Todd Kapler's "People and Environmental Change" website, the Dust Bowl occurred because of poor farming and years of drought. Kapler describes what happened: [The] Plains grasslands had been deeply plowed and planted to wheat. During the years when there was adequate rainfall, the land produced bountiful crops. But as the droughts of the early 1930s deepened, the farmers kept plowing and planting and nothing would grow. The ground cover that held the soil in place was gone. The Plains winds whipped across the fields raising billowing clouds of dust to the skies. The sky could darken for days, and even the most well sealed homes could have a thick layer of dust on furniture. In some places the dust would drift like snow, covering farmsteads.
Earl and the other Okies dreamed of a new life in California, where peaches and apples and peas and oranges were ready to pick year-round. With pamphlets in hand promising good jobs and a perfect climate, the Oakies headed west on Route 66, the famous "Mother Road" that stretched all the way from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California. Families from the Dust Bowl bought old pickup trucks with the money they made from selling their farm equiptment and furniture, and packed in whatever they possibly fit in the car. After strapping their mattresses to the pile of precious belongings, the children climbed on top. Then the families began their hot and dirty 2,000 mile journey west. Many did not have enough money to pay for gas or food for their trek, and so they looked for work as they traveled. Often they stopped in a town for days or weeks until they could earn enough money to continue on. Earl was seven when he made the trip, and although he doesn't remember ever going hungry himself, he tells us that he's sure his dad did. There was certainly no money for hotels, and so along the way they "cooked outside, slept outside, went to the bathroom in the woods, bathed when they could, and did whatever it took to get to the next day." Tent towns would spring up alongside the road each night, and Steinbeck describes that "every night a world [was] created," complete with furniture, friends and enemies, "and every morning the world [was] torn down like a circus" (250).
The conditions in the Okievilles were terrible. When the Joads arrive at one, Tom looks around "at the grimy tents, 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," and realizes for the first time that his family may have left poverty in Oklahoma only to find it again in California. The police would come to the camps often to break them up, beat them up, and move the Okies out. Tom Joad talks to a character in Grapes who believes that the police and the farmers kept the Okies moving so they could never gain power. "Some says they don' want us to vote; keep us movin' so we can't vote. An' some says so we can't get on relief. An' some says if we set in one place we'd get organized. I don't know why. I on'y know we get rode all the time" (314).
When the economy goes bad, people get scared. During the Depression, people were frightened that they would not be able to support their own families, and they looked for someone to blame for their misfortunes. In California, the Okies were the easiest scapegoat. Often turned away from the California border by the Los Angeles police force because they had no money, no place to live, and no jobs, the Okies had to brush off cruel predjudices that attacked them from all sides. They were denied medical treatment and encountered signs like the one at a Bakersfield movie theater demanding "Niggers and Okies upstairs." Californians told themselves that "We got to keep these here people down or they'll take the country... Sure they talk the same language, but they ain't the same" (303). People dehumanized them, which made it easier to stand by and watch them suffer. One man in Grapes complains that "Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. A human being wouldn't live like they do. A human being couldn't stand it to be so dirty and miserable. They ain't a hell of a lot better than gorillas" (284). Do these terrible words sound familiar? Depending on the decade or region you choose, they could have been used by a plantation owner against a black slave, by a colonist against a Native American, by a New Englander against an Irish immigrant, or by a white supremacist against a Jew, a Latino, or an Asian. Over and over again we find that people who are not happy or confident themselves boost themselves up by tearing others down. Will we ever learn?
Earl moved into the Arvin Camp in 1941, and lived there on and off for 13 years. He and his father and brother eventually moved from tent space #529 to a tin house. He tells overwhelmingly happy stories of life at the camp and even compares the rec hall there to the fun kids have at Magic Mountain today. There were magic shows and basketball games, dances and drama, pie suppers, cake walks, weddings and movies -- all to be enjoyed at the rec hall. Touring the camp with Earl is a powerful experience. He points out where the gas pumps used to be where he was lucky to find work as a 12 year old. He climbs into a tin cabin and exclaims about the heat in the summer, and shows us holes where people had nailed up pictures and posters to make their space at camp seem more like home. He remembers the orange crates and apple boxes that served as their furniture. He points to the post office, the library, the manager's office, each building calling up a memory for him of his time spent there.
Then there are the farmers who played games with the Okies' lives, living off the labor of a people who were too hungry, and too tired to demand what they deserved. Are they embarrassed? They must be! These farmers were too eager to control the ideas and thoughts that they did not agree with, the tale they were not proud to see told. I believe that they must recognize their wrongdoings, for by burning and banning history they tried to destroy the evidence of their guilt. But I wonder, as they cheered for its' destruction, did their cruelties really burn into black wisps of smoke with the pages of Steinbeck's book?
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Irene - Doomed to poverty: Mexican Americans and the Depression