11.6.8 The Grapes of Wrath
This excerpt from John Steinbeck's famous 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, describes the Joads' life, focusing on the favorite son, Tom Joad. This scene captures a morning when he wakes up in a migrant camp and begins the day as usual, looking for work to earn money to help his family survive. What kind of people does he describe in this excerpt? How does Steinbeck describe them? What role does food play in the excerpt? How is this description of bacon similar to and different from the one in the song in Source 4? How does this excerpt help provide an answer of how Steinbeck imagined that ordinary people experienced the Great Depression?
John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, has a structure in which chapters alternate between a narrative overview of the economy and society during the Great Depression and the story of the Joads. This structure allows Steinbeck to highlight the structural challenges the Joads and other Dust Bowl migrants faced during the Great Depression. The excerpt in Source 1 reflects the omniscient narrator describing the context of the Dust Bowl farmers. In this source, the narrative describes the daily life of the Joads as they struggle to find work and earn money to survive in California's agriculture industry. Ask your students to draw comparisons between this excerpt and other representations of daily life during the Great Depression. The song in Source 4 provides important context to better understand ordinary people and culture during the Great Depression. Ask your students to note important areas of overlap between this and previous sources in the inquiry set in order to develop a multidimensional claim about ordinary people's experiences during the Great Depression.
It was still dark when he awakened. A small clashing noise brought him up from sleep. Tom listened and heard again the squeak of iron on iron. He moved stiffly and shivered in the morning air. The camp still slept. Tom stood up and looked over the side of the truck. The eastern mountains were blue-black, and as he watched, the light stood up faintly behind them, colored at the mountain rims with a washed red, then growing colder, grayer, darker, as it went up overhead, until at a place near the western horizon it merged with pure night. Down in the valley the earth was the lavender-gray of dawn.
The clash of iron sounded again. Tom looked down the line of tents, only a little lighter gray than the ground. Beside a tent he saw a flash of orange fire seeping from the cracks in an old iron stove. Gray smoke spurted up from a stubby smoke-pipe.
Tom climbed over the truck side and dropped to the ground. He moved slowly toward the stove. He saw a girl working about the stove, saw that she carried a baby on her crooked arm, and that the baby was nursing, its head up under the girl's shirtwaist. And the girl moved about, poking the fire, shifting the rusty stove lids to make a better draft, opening the oven door; and all the time the baby sucked, and the mother shifted it deftly from arm to arm. The baby didn't interfere with her work or with the quick gracefulness of her movements. And the orange fire licked out of the stove cracks and threw flickering reflections on the tent.
Tom moved closer. He smelled frying bacon and baking bread. From the east the light grew swiftly. Tom came near to the stove and stretched out his hands to it. The girl looked at him and nodded, so that her two braids jerked.
"Good mornin'," she said, and she turned the bacon in the pan.
The tent flap jerked up and a young man came out and an older man followed him. They were dressed in new blue dungarees and in dungaree coats, stiff with filler, the brass buttons shining. They were sharp-faced men, and they looked much alike. The younger man had a dark stubble beard and the older man a white stubble beard. Their heads and faces were wet, their hair dripped, water stood in drops on their stiff beards. Their cheeks shone with dampness. Together they stood looking quietly into the lightening east. They yawned together and watched the light on the hill rims. And then they turned and saw Tom.
"Mornin'," the older man said, and his face was neither friendly nor unfriendly.
"Mornin'," said Tom.
And, "Mornin'," said the younger man.
The water slowly dried on their faces. They came to the stove and warmed their hands at it.
The girl kept to her work. Once she set the baby down and tied her braids together in back with a string, and the two braids jerked and swung as she worked. She set tin cups on a big packing box, set tin plates and knives and forks out. Then she scooped bacon from the deep grease and laid it on a tin platter, and the bacon cricked and rustled as it grew crisp. She opened the rusty oven door and took out a square pan full of big high biscuits.
When the smell of the biscuits struck the air both of the men inhaled deeply. The younger said, "Kee-rist! " softly.
Now the older man said to Tom, "Had your breakfast?"
"Well, no, I ain't. But my folks is over there. They ain't up. Need the sleep."
"Well, set down with us, then. We got plenty — thank God! "
"Why, thank ya," Tom said. "Smells so darn good I couldn' say no."
"Don't she?" the younger man asked. "Ever smell anything so good in ya life?" They marched to the packing box and squatted around it.
"Workin' around here?" the young man asked.
"Aim to," said Tom. "We jus' got in las' night. Ain't had no chance to look aroun'."
"We had twelve days' work," the young man said.
The girl, working by the stove, said, "They even got new clothes." Both men looked down at their stiff blue clothes, and they smiled a little shyly. The girl set out the platter of bacon and the brown, high biscuits and a bowl of bacon gravy and a pot of coffee, and then she squatted down by the box too. The baby still nursed, its head up under the girl's shirtwaist.
They filled their plates, poured bacon gravy over the biscuits, and sugared their coffee.
The older man filled his mouth full, and he chewed and chewed and gulped and swallowed. "God Almighty, it's good!" he said, and he filled his mouth again.
The younger man said, "We been eatin' good for twelve days now. Never missed a meal in twelve days — none of us. Workin' an' gettin' our pay an' eatin'." He fell to again, almost frantically, and refilled his plate. They drank the scalding coffee and threw the grounds to the earth and filled their cups again.
There was color in the light now, a reddish gleam. The father and son stopped eating. They were facing to the east and their faces were lighted by the dawn. The image of the mountain and the light coming over it were reflected in their eyes. And then they threw the grounds from their cups to the earth, and they stood up together.
"Got to git goin'," the older man said.
The younger turned to Tom. "Lookie," he said. "We're layin' some pipe. 'F you want to walk over with us, maybe we could get you on."
Tom said, "Well, that's mighty nice of you. An' I sure thank ya for the breakfast."
Glad to have you," the older man said. "We'll try to git you workin' if you want."
"Ya goddam right I want," Tom said.