The idea for this recurring posts is to read a book over the course of 4-6 weeks, and each week to delve deeply into what has been read the previous week. This will allow for a more interesting analysis of the meaning of the book, and allow me to make predictions, in a way that isn’t possible with book reviews. Reading over a number of weeks also lets you read along at the same time if you wish, which will hopefully enrich the discussion.
Spoiler warning obviously
Chapter 20 seems to be a the culmination of all the bleak foreshadowing thus far. The Joad family have arrived at a Hooverville (a decrepit area filled with the rundown tents of the migrants), and it really is a sorry sight. I just can’t get over the fact that the US, supposedly the land of freedom, treated its citizens this atrociously less than a century ago. Worse though is that I’d never even heard of these events before, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
The first thing I want to comment on is the lack of labour protections. Policies of blacklisting and locking up those who lead worker unity movements were widespread. Since there wasn’t a minimum wage, it was easy to do a full days work and still not be able to feed your family. All this build the picture of a time when the rich protected their interests at the expense of the poor very effectively. A picture that looks horribly like today. The US has the worst minimum wage to average wage ratio of all the developed nations that have one, yet there is still significant resistance to raising it. The scariest part, however, is that in the book, the working classes were mostly united against the rich who were feeding off them. This is not the case today. I sometimes wonder if we are too far gone this time, due to changing technologies like social media.
One of the characters bluntly remarks that religion can’t cure hunger. I’ve been seeing the religious themes throughout the book, and haven’t known what to make of them up to this point. Now, it seems to be saying that institutionalized religion cannot provide for you, and might even be a stretch on the money you have (as with the funerals). However, I think there is a place for spirituality in helping keep people grounded during hard times. It gives them something to live for.
There are two more characters who have difficulties adapting this week. One, John, turns to drink, while the other, Connie, abandons his wife and unborn child. I think this is here really to emphasize just how hard this change is. That the manual labourers are so much more worthy often than the those who own the plantations, since so many have such fortitude after surviving in the awful conditions for any amount of time. There isn’t really much to say that I haven’t covered in previous weeks, but I just wanted to draw your attention to the theme reoccurring. I’m sure more of the family will succumb to the conditions before the novel concludes.
There was an incident with stew that really demonstrates just how dire the conditions are. The Joad family turn up and start cooking the remains of the food they brought with them. As soon as the children of the camp smell it, they all crowd around to watch, hoping to get a portion. Ma is heartbroken that she can only give them all the smallest of tastes, and even then she can’t feed the whole family properly. Then one of the kid’s mothers turns up to complain about Ma feeding her child, probably because it makes her feel insecure as a parent. This scene was honestly so hard to read.
There have been many mentions of families being torn apart forever up to this point. Since the internet obviously doesn’t exist, there is a very good chance that if a family split up, they will never see each other again. The frequency of this happening, and the casualness with which it’s discussed, is deeply saddening. While I’ve often focused on the economic costs of the migration, this clearly shows there are social, specifically familial, ones too. It’s so easy to overlook an individual person’s life being ripped apart when we look back in history, and this book does an excellent job of bringing individual pain to the fore.
Another thing that’s barely changed since the novel was written: police abuse of power. I might not be as blatant as falsifying evidence and setting Hooverville ablaze, but it is still very prevalent in our current society. The treatment of economic migrants in the book is very reminiscent of the treatment of ethnic minorities today. Once again, Steinbeck’s masterpiece is extremely relevant still.
When John tries to share his pain, it seems to be taboo. There is a ‘speak no evil’ culture, where a positive mindset should be maintained at all costs, and you shouldn’t burden others with your own problems. This was a pretty forward thinking criticism by Steinbeck, as far as I’m aware. I’m happy to say that, as a society, we are much better when it comes to mental health issues, and sharing our emotions without stigma, although we still have a long way to go. Nevertheless, this was a pleasant reminder of the progress we’ve made, as it can be easy to lose sight of that.
The family has a rebellious streak when it comes to authority. They are a proud people, like so many of the migrants, and so, rightly or wrongly, are stubborn about bowing to those in positions of power. This sometimes means that they ignore or resent good advice that is given to them by people who have already experienced the horrors. This example of the confirmation bias is not surprising, as human have been doing it for centuries, but certainly doesn’t serve them well. Again, this parallels our modern society, with the rise of post-truthism and the anti-intellectual sentiment. However, it does enable them to stand up to those who abuse their power. As long as they keep fighting, they haven’t lost, as the thought goes. My personal worry is that they will be broken by the system before long.
I’m reading chapters 21 & 22 next week. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my analysis and how it relates to the modern world.