Steinbeck famously said: “…I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.” He succeeded. Despite wearing its baggage of “greatness,” The Grapes of Wrath’s anger still resonates while Steinbeck’s call to arms still rings with passion, rage, and conviction. And prescience: Think about the parallels with our news cycle.
Climate Change: bad farming practices and human carelessness—let us not forget that the Dust Bowl was a man made ecological disaster—severe dust storms, or “black blizzards,” reached heights of 10,000 feet, blowing cars off the road and blocking out sunlight. At times, the clouds blackened the sky all the way to New York City, and much of the topsoil was deposited in the Atlantic Ocean.
A migration crisis steeped in ignorance and fear: The Dust Bowl made Americans refugees in their own country. As they traveled west from the drought-ravaged Great Plains American-born migrants were viewed as disease-ridden intruders who would sponge off the government. As many of the impoverished migrants languished in camps on the outskirts of California communities, some locals warned that the newcomers would spread disease and crime. They advocated harsh measures to keep migrants out or send them back home. This rhetoric is all too familiar. “Send them back! Send them back!”
Today’s headlines appeal to our sense of compassion while simultaneously stoking fear and ignorance: “A caravan of migrants is heading towards the US to destroy our way of life!” The images of hunger, need, and desperation from the 30’s and 40’s are not that different from the images of today. Remember the father and daughter who drowned while trying to make their way across the Rio Grande in June of 2019—their feet in the water and their heads on the reeds of dry land? The toddler tucked into her dad’s T-shirt? Her arm flung around his neck? Think about the water—in the form of a flood—that threatens the Joads at the end of the novel.
In the Joads, Steinbeck created an indelible portrait of resilience and grace. They are like every family, just doing the best they can with the little they have. They are a stark reminder of the human toll of migration but also the power human beings possess to persevere, to change, and to be kind.
I want us to reflect on what it means to be a refugee and migrant. Who makes up a caravan of migrants? What do they look like? Where do they come from? What language do they speak? Does the color of their skin matter? What is our responsibility as citizens when we encounter their needs? The needs of others?
There is a ghostly quality to the telling of this tale. In paring down Frank Galati’s adaptation of the novel we have focused on the almost dreamlike movement of the narrative from moment to moment. Characters come and go, they transform from one shape to another, they leave but reappear as someone else. Migration of bodies and souls, the movement from one state to another—literally and figuratively—takes great courage and strength. I’ve focused on the possible rituals that illustrate these moments of transformation.
Bruce Springsteen sang about the Joads:
“Well the highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kidding nobody about where it goes
I’m sitting down here in the campfire light
Searching for the ghost of Tom Joad”
It’s a great song. It’s a bleak song. But it’s a hopeful song. And that is ultimately what I find most moving about the novel: its belief that people can be good and that they are worth saving.
Tom Joad makes a journey from self to community, from “I” to “we.” Tom moves from caring only for himself to a familial loyalty to seeing the entire world as his family.
There is hope, the steps may seem slight, but there is always hope.