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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

THE STORY CHAPTER 16

The Hudson and the Dodge- no longer the Joads' Hudson and the Wilsons' Dodge, but a small caravan belonging to both families- plod slowly westward across Texas.

Travelers often get into a groove. If you've driven for days on a long trip, you'll recognize these symptoms: nothing matters but movement; you mark time in miles; eating and sleeping routines change; even when you stop, the hum of the engine lingers in your ears.

The Joads have acquired the momentum of life on the road. The youngest, Ruthie and Winfield, adapt first. Then the older ones. All but Granma, in fact, who has fallen ill and seems to have taken leave of her senses. She bays like a "houn' dog," as Al Joad says, "an' don' seem to reco'nize nobody." She's showing signs that she may soon follow Grampa to the grave.

To pass the time, Rose of Sharon and Connie imagine how lovely life will be in California. Ma can't participate in their imaginings. She seems to know it is all a dream. Does that mean she's a realist? Possibly, but not altogether, because she has visions of her own. She aims to keep the family intact, come what may. "It ain't good for folks to break up," she tells Rose of Sharon. A short time later she makes the point vividly, by threatening to strike with a jack handle anyone who defies her.

How does Ma get into such a state? It's so unlike her. Her outburst has its origin in car trouble. The Dodge breaks a con-rod, which will take a good day or more to repair. Tom and Casy propose to fix it while the truck goes on ahead. In the Dodge, they can make good time and will catch up in a few days. Does the idea make sense? It does to everyone but Ma. She can think of a dozen ways in which Tom and Casy will fail to rejoin the family. "I ain't a-gonna go," she says.

"What you mean, you ain't gonna go? You got to go," Pa argues. "We [the men] made up our mind."


Ma is relentless. She brandishes the jack handle. "On'y way you gonna get me to go is to whup me."

Ma's revolt astonishes Pa. He knows that if he gives in, he will have abdicated his traditional role as head of the family. It's a big step, but he takes it, convinced that Ma's opinion- that "All we got is the family unbroke"- is correct.

Back home, Pa couldn't have done it. Out on the highway, however, a new set of rules has gone into effect. The family, having witnessed Ma's coup, realizes that the old ways just don't count anymore.

Ma takes over immediately. She makes a plan for the family to stop at the next roadside campsite and wait for the car to be fixed.

From now on we'll have to consider Ma the leader of the Joads, and her principal belief- that at all costs the family must stick together- as the Joads' eleventh commandment.

Tom Joad swings into the task of taking out the damaged con-rod. He knows what he's doing. Unlike most skillful mechanics, Tom does the work adroitly and can talk about other things at the same time. He and Casy speculate on what their future might be like. Tom avoids looking too far ahead. He clings to what he learned in prison: "I'm jus' puttin' one foot in front a the other."

Casy, on the other hand, sees the big picture. "They's stuff goin' on that the folks doin' it don't know nothin' about- yet," he says, referring to the flood of west-bound migrants. "They's gonna come a thing that's gonna change the whole country." Do Casy's words sound familiar? They should, because they resound with themes introduced in Chapter 14.

Al Joad returns with the truck and picks up Tom. En route to the auto junkyard, Al quizzes Tom about prison life and tries to talk of personal family matters. Tom won't do it. "I ruther not," Tom says. "I ruther jus'- lay one foot down in front a the other." Why is Tom so reticent? Why is it painful for him to talk of anything except the here and now? Did his time in prison rob him of the capacity to feel? Evidently not, considering what happens in the junkyard.

The yardkeeper, a one-eyed man who hates his boss intensely, lets Tom and Al rummage around. They get lucky and soon find the part they need. In the meantime, the one-eyed man, his empty eye socket squirming with muscles, berates his boss and weeps in self-pity. Tom turns on the man: "Now looka-here fella. You got that eye wide open. An' ya dirty, ya stink. Ya jus' askin' for it. Ya like it. Lets ya feel sorry for yaself." Tom then tells the man a story of a one-legged whore who did a brisk business by capitalizing on her defect instead of giving in to it.

NOTE: The point of Tom's story is lost on the man, but presumably not on the reader. The tale is a parable, a story from which one learns a lesson. Tom wants to help the man, to help him see the possibilities of life more clearly, in spite of having only one eye. Although Tom treats the man roughly, he is not without feeling. His words disclose a profound concern for others, especially for downtrodden, defeated people. Remember the fat man at the filling station? You might disapprove of Tom's tactlessness, but can you give Tom credit anyway, for his intent?

More and more, we are discovering the depths of the real Tom Joad. Rather than jabber about the future or reminisce about the past, Tom is a man of action. When something needs doing, he does it. Think, for example, of the alacrity with which he fixes the car. Casy talks about loving all the people; Tom acts on the idea. If you consider Casy the teacher, think of Tom as the star pupil, demonstrating in his own way what he has been taught.

Even though Tom prefers to "lay one foot down at a time," he runs headlong into the future that very night after the family has reassembled at a campground.

The owner calls the migrants "bums." As you might expect, Tom bristles, but aside from a few sarcastic retorts, he keeps his cool. He also hears for the first time that vagrancy laws have been toughened up, just to keep the migrants on the move. The most troubling indication of things to come, however, is a story told about California by a ragged man huddled with other migrant men around a campfire.

When the ragged man announces, "I'm comin' back. I been there," the men's faces quickly turn toward him. "I don' wanna fret [worry] you," he says, but then he proceeds to tell a woeful tale. He's lost a wife and two children to starvation in California. The authorities didn't care. They just listed the deaths as heart failure.

"You'll be a-campin' by a ditch, you an' fifty other families," the ragged man says, and when you've got nothing left to eat and you're willing to work for pennies a day, you'll be invited to pick peaches or to chop cotton. For every job three times as many starving workers show up as they can use. Naturally, they hire those who'll work for the least pay. So, "lemme tell ya what to do when ya meet that fella says he got work. Ast him to write down what he's gonna pay. Ast him that. I tell you men you're gonna get fooled if you don't."

Bad news- even when it's the truth- is never welcome. Most of the men around the fire consider the ragged man a troublemaker and a shiftless bum. "You sure you ain't a labor faker?" asks the campground owner, suggesting to the others that the man has been sent to stir up discontent.

Later, Pa almost tells Ma the ragged man's story. But Tom intervenes. He's decided to keep it from her. If the story is true, what can she do about it, anyway? To turn back is out of the question. The Joads- like the turtle left behind many pages ago- must go on.

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© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc. Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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