Chapel Hill: Opinion

Robert Wallace: The grapes of wrath

I go downstairs; my shoes muted by the gray-painted cement steps. The chair with its large cushioned arms faces the furnace, which, in winter, seems to run non-stop. I take a seat, remove my shoes, and plant my feet against the furnace. I open the paperback book and begin reading.

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently,

and they did not cut the scarred earth.

Thus begins “The Grapes of Wrath.” I am 17 years old, living in the home of my grandparents, parentless since the age of 14. I sleep in the same room as my half-brothers. Allen is 4; Michael, 3.

At night, when I enter the bedroom, two hours after they have already been put to sleep, I sometimes lie in bed and listen to the rise and fall of their little boy chests. Sometimes one of the boys will have a bad dream and whimper and call out, and I will have to say “It’s only a dream, go back to sleep,” and they will roll over and begin snoring again. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, when both Mike and Allen are snoring softly; their peculiar breathing rhythms disturbing me, I’ll leave the house and go outside and stand by the barn and look at the sky. There, in the quiet of the night, I’ll count stars.

But back to the book. “The Grapes of Wrath” was published 75 years ago. I am currently reading it again; now 40 years later. Published in 1939, “The Grapes of Wrath” caused a stir. John Steinbeck’s Oklahoma tenant farmers, devastated by Mother Nature and ruinous farming practices, travel west to California to find a better life. What they discover, instead, is avarice, on the part of big-time farmers and banks.

Steinbeck tells his story through the Joad family, a hardscrabble clan that despite a strong willingness to work, discover that a desire to make good is too often thwarted by forces beyond their control; often by men bent to exploit them for their own gain. The Joads discover, too, that thousands like them have made their way to “the land of honey.”

There are many themes and motifs in “The Grapes of Wrath.” It is full of mythology and allusions to Christianity; it can be read as a proletarian novel, a novel of realism, or an example of naturalism, much like Upton Sinclair. And then there is the concept of the organism; the individual “I” organism versus the collective “We.” Ma Joad, more than any character, realizes that in order to survive she needs to keep the family together, and by the end of the book she comes to understand that the family is more than the Joads. She says: “Use’ ta be the fambly was first. It ain’t so now. It’s anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do.”

More stuff about stars. When I was a young man of 21, I spent a summer outside Chicago, working with seniors, first delivering meals to them for a few weeks in Chicago itself, and then, in late summer, taking two-week trips with seniors to the Illinois countryside. It was a way of getting them out of Chicago, in the summer, as this was before many in northern cities had air conditioning. The organization was called Little Brothers for the Poor. One night a woman asked me to push her outside so she could see the stars. She was in a wheelchair. I pushed her away from the house, in the dark recesses of the middle of the front yard, where the light from the house didn’t reach much.

We gazed up.

“It’s been decades since I’ve seen stars like this,” she said. “You can’t see anything in the sky in the city.”

“Yes,” I said.

“There are billions and billions and billions of stars,” she said. “There are more stars than we can possibly fathom.” And then: “It’s beautiful. It’s truly a gift to be able to see this. Thank you.”

Now, early in the morning, in early March, in this year, while my wife and daughter sleep, and before the dog wakes, I go downstairs and out the backdoor. An owl hoots, and I wait for the response, but its mate is quiet. I think of the night as being much like the sea – this vast life that humans know so little about.

What does “The Grapes of Wrath” have to do with the stars? I don’t know except to say that when the Joads crossed the Mohave Desert they did so at night.

The dusk passed into dark and the desert stars came out in the soft sky, stars stabbing

and sharp, with few points and rays to them, and the sky was velvet.

It was my grandparents and the old woman who waxed poetically about the stars that informed me that I wanted to become a social worker and help the elderly. And Steinbeck himself who taught me that there is unity in everything: the earth, all the living organisms, the sky, and the people. All the people.

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