Sunday, October 16, 2011

The thin line between hunger and anger

Some politicians and economists tell us the 'recession' is over, but it sure doesn't look like it to most Americans. In fact, when you see friends and others out of work or losing their homes it looks a LOT more like a 'Depression'. A recent article in the LA Times pointed out that what we don't yet see coming out of the hard times this time around is great art - it seems the movie makers and musicians are too far removed from the plight of normal Americans to see what's going on. I guess we can always revisit some of the art to come out of that other Depression back in the 1930s, like Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

The book centers around the Joad family from Oklahoma. Having lost their farm to the bank they decide to move to California after seeing fliers advertising high pay for farm workers, and hit the road in an old truck converted to haul all their worldly belongings. On the road, however, they notice a lot of others in similar circumstances are also heading to California with similarly high hopes. And when they arrive they find a vast oversupply of labor has driven down wages to levels making it impossible to support a family. Even worse, however, they arrive to find that nearly all the land is owned by huge corporate farmers who are colluding to exploit workers and keep wages low, and using law enforcement officials to prevent unions from forming.

In spite of the optimism the Joad family has for making a better life in California, this is not a happy story and was not meant to be such. Steinbeck famously wrote "I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this," and there's a lot of that same sentiment today. While the migrant worker aspect of the story might remind readers more of the Mexican workers of today along with its attendant racism ("Okies" were as reviled as "illegal immigrants" are now), the fear of losing one's home and not being able to provide for a family will resonate with most everyone. And the book illustrates well the effects of the economic disaster on families. The Joads find themselves disintegrating even while on the road, and they learn that they must rely on their larger community more and more. Assistance by the federal government is an oasis from the persecution by the harassment of the California deputies, but isn't enough for them to become self-reliant again.

The style of the writing is fairly raw in its portrayal of the poor. The Joads are people of the land and their language is coarse and talk of sex is frequent. Their speech is rendered the way they would talk, but it's easy enough to understand. Nonetheless, they come across as honest and deserving of respect and sympathy. Interspersed throughout the narrative are chapters that leave the Joads to show the larger view of the situation. And while I found some of these diversions annoying, the overall story is so powerful it makes the reader angry at the situation. Also, it took me about 150 pages before I really got into the story. It's not what you'd call a "pleasurable" read, but it's compelling for the gravity of the story and you can't help but feel hopeful for the family to get a break. And it's probably a story that should be read again in these difficult economic times.

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