Reading the Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most read classic works of literature in high school, and also one of the most thought-provoking. John Steinbeck’s novel chronicles the experiences of the Joad Family, along with thousands of other American families. In the 1930’s, farmers all across the Midwest lost their homes and land due to a severe drought in an already depleted region, creating “The Dust Bowl.” They were told to head west to California to become migrant workers where the jobs were plentiful, and where there was no thick curtain of dust hanging in the air.
How did the “Okies” fare? Here's a teen-friendly refresher course in the plot of this classic work of literature, as well as SAT vocabulary your teen can use to describe what happens for his or herself.
When the novel opens, Tom Joad is hitchhiking home from a stint in the Oklahoma Prison. The road is hot and lonely, and he picks up a turtle to take as a gift for his younger siblings. He stops for rest and Jim Casy, a former preacher who had baptized Tom himself, offers to share the shade. Jim tells Tom that he has given up preaching because it seems to him that he believes less in sin and damnation and more in the holiness of human action. Jim accompanies Tom to his family’s home, but the two realize immediately that something is wrong. The entire area feels empty and quiet, and Tom realizes that not only is his family gone, but everyone is gone.
Useful vocabulary to describe the farmland:
- Desolate - Abandoned and lifeless
- Barren – Lifeless, infertile
- Dilapidated - Neglected and run down
- Devoid - Lacking
- Vacuous - Empty
Suddenly, an old man, Muley Graves, who had been camping out on the farmlands, comes out of the fields and tells Tom that his family has gone to live on Uncle John’s farm, and they are all leaving for California soon. Tom goes to the home of his uncle and shares a loving reunion with his large family: Ma and Pa Joad, Granma and Grampa Joad, Uncle John, brothers Noah and Winfield, and sisters Rose of Sharon and Ruthie. Almost immediately, the clan begins packing up for the trip.
Less than a day into the journey, the Joads encounter their first pitfall. While stopped for gas, their dog is hit by another car on the highway. This does not bode well for the Joads, but they continue on, until they come across Ivy and Sairy Wilson broken down by the side of the road. They stop and decide to camp for the night, and, while resting in the Wilsons’ tent, Grampa has a stroke and dies. After burying Grampa, the Joads decide to continue on with the Wilsons, misery loves company, right?
Together the Joads and the Wilsons make progress, and eventually encounter the California desert. The lush green valleys they had heard so much about are nowhere to be seen. They meet a father and son traveling in the opposite direction, and the father tells them there are no jobs to be had, and no friendly faces for the migrant workers in California, and that they are headed back home to starve among friends.