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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

THE STORY CHAPTER 26

Life in the government camp agrees with the Joads. But after a month of unemployment they are compelled to move on. They're out of money. They've resorted to eating fried dough at mealtime. Rose of Sharon's baby is due soon. If mother and child don't eat properly, their lives will be endangered.

A month or two ago, the men in the family would have decided that it was time to pack up and go. This time, Ma gives the word, "We'll go in the mornin'."

Pa's reaction to Ma's command is what you might expect from a man who's lost his authority. He's angry, downcast, and embarrassed. Uncharacteristically, Ma rubs Pa's wounds with salt, telling him that since he hasn't supported his family lately, he can't tell her or anybody else what to do.

After Pa walks away in disgust, Tom questions Ma's motives. Making Pa angry was meant to take his mind off his heavy heart, she claims. If a man can get mad, trouble hasn't defeated him yet. Pa is still "awright."

"I don' need to make you mad. I got to lean on you," Ma declares to Tom. "You won't give up."

Tom objects. He, too, would like to drown his sorrows in drink, like Uncle John, or prove his manhood by seducing girls, like Al.

"You can't, Tom," Ma responds. "They's some folks that's just theirself an' nothin' more.... Ever'thing you do is more'n you."

How are we to interpret Ma's puzzling words? Why has Ma appointed Tom to a special position in the family? How can Tom be "more'n" what he is?

Perhaps Tom deserves an annointed place. We've never seen him do anything frivolous or self-indulgent. He's awfully serious, ever mindful of the need to keep trying. Also, Ma may be telling Tom that she's getting too tired to continue carrying the family by herself. On the other hand, Ma may simply be advising Tom to be aware that his life has a purpose beyond itself. He has a mission. In other words, his life is destined to have meaning for others. Or as Ma says to Tom, "You're spoke for."

The Joads gather their belongings and prepare to leave. They say their goodbyes: Al to a girl to whom he's pledged undying love; Pa to the camp manager, Tom to his friends Jule and Will, who keep talking about the gains to be made if workers organize unions.

Almost at the last minute, Ma decides that Rose of Sharon should have a Joad family heirloom, a pair of gold earrings. But first, Rose of Sharon's ears must be pierced. When it's done, we learn that mothers-to-be need pierced ears to protect their babies. That, at least, is what Ma tells Rose of Sharon to keep the girl's spirits up.

Out on the Highway again, the Joads' truck blows a tire. While Al and Tom plug the nailhole, a car stops and a well-dressed man tells them that they can find work picking peaches at the Hooper Ranch, about forty miles north. The Joads drive directly there, calculating all the while how much money they will earn and what food they'll buy. Family morale soars, as you might expect after several lean weeks. Ma and Al even dare to dream a little of better days ahead. Ma aspires to own a house, and Al has thoughts of setting out on his own and finding a job in a garage.


Outside the Hooper Ranch the road is blocked with cars, policemen, and armed men. As the truck, escorted by police motorcycles, passes through the gate, Tom notices a line of angry men standing in the roadside ditch. When he asks a man with a badge what's going on, he's told it's none of his affair.

As quickly as possible the family rushes into the orchard to pick peaches. Hurrying proves to be a mistake, because the first batch of peaches is rejected by the checker. The fruit is bruised, he says. Peaches must be handled gently; you can't throw them into the box.

Working slowly and carefully, by midafternoon the family has packed 20 boxes, enough for one dollar's credit at the Hooper store. It's not much, but it's enough to buy meat, potatoes, and coffee for the family's first square meal in weeks, Ma uses up a dollar's credit quickly because prices are inflated at the ranch's grocery store. The fruit pickers could buy food more cheaply in town, but they can't afford the gasoline needed to drive there. They are stuck paying premium prices.

Under pressure from Ma, the store clerk gives Ma an extra ten cents' worth of sugar. But he puts his own dime in the till to cover the cost until the Joads can earn more credit. Ma is grateful comments, "If you're in trouble or hurt or need- go to poor people. They're the only ones that'll help."

After dark, Tom, curious about the crowd at the ranch entrance earlier that day, decides to walk out there and look around. He's stopped by a guard who warns him to walk in another direction. You can be sure that Tom won't give up so easily. He doubles back, slides under the barbed-wire fence, and walks down the road. In a deep ravine he spots a tent, approaches it, and is greeted by none other than Jim Casy. Their reunion is warm and affectionate.

Tom asks about the ruckus at the gate, and Casy, who's been in the thick of it, tells all. The men are workers, lured to the Hooper Ranch to pick peaches for five cents a box. But when they got there, the boss told them no, we're paying two-and-a-half cents. Rather than work for those low wages, the men went on strike, and Casy himself is the strike's leader.

How does a man go from preacher to head striker? As Casy explains it to Tom, spending time behind bars helps. In jail with others Casy figured out something he never could have learned alone in the wilderness: One man in need, even if he shouts at the top of his lungs, can be ignored. But if everybody joins in the shouting, by God, they're heard, and the man's need gets satisfied. Or more concisely- in unity there is power.

Now there's a battle raging-the police versus the pickets. Abusive state troopers are trying to break the strike and drive the pickets away. If the strikers can stick together and hang on for a few more days, though, the fruit will begin to ripen. To get his peaches picked in time, the owner will then be forced to pay five cents a box. When Tom reveals that that's the pay he's earning, Casy is astonished. He realizes that the owner is using people like the Joads as weapons in the war against the strikers. As long as the Joads are willing to work, the strike cannot succeed. And when the strike is broken, Casy asserts, the rate of pay will be cut in half just like that!

"Tell the folks in there how it is, Tom," Casy says. "Tell 'em they're starvin' us and stabbin' theirself in the back."

If Tom took Casy's message back inside the ranch, would Ma, Pa, and the other Joads give up their jobs to help the strikers? Would other families abandon their work? Tom doesn't think so.

Suddenly, there are noises near the tent. Casy shuts off the lantern and goes outside. A bright flashlight beam catches him. Voices: "Stand where you are." "That's him."

Casy stares at the light. "Listen," he says, "you fellas don' know what you're doin'. You're helpin' to starve kids."

Those are Casy's last words. One of the intruders swings a heavy club at Casy, crushing his skull.

Tom grabs the dub and attacks. Five blows and Casy's killer lies dead in the brush. Then Tom receives a stroke, a glancing blow to his face, but strong enough to break his nose and tear his mouth.

In pain, Tom stumbles back to the family's quarters, somehow eluding his pursuers. In one impulsive moment, Tom has made himself a hunted man. You can't blame him for exploding. He admired Casy too much to let his death go unavenged. But the word that's spread the next day says that the unknown killer started the fatal fight. Posses are scouring the countryside looking for a man with a bruised face, Pa reports, and "fellas talkin' up a lynchin'."

Tom's account of Casy's death moves Ma to comment, "I wisht Granma could a heard," for in his final breath Casy utters words that repeat almost to the letter what Christ said on the cross.

Removing Casy from the scene breaks the strike at Hooper Ranch. When the family picks peaches the next day, they work for two-and-a-half cents a box. A day's work nets a dollar and forty-six cents, enough to let the family eat mush, but not much more.

Tom proposes to leave the family. He's in too much danger if he stays. His presence puts the family in jeopardy, too. But Ma won't hear of it. She still needs Tom to lean on. Besides, the remaining Joads are gradually falling apart. Al, for example, wants to run away. He thinks, selfishly, that he'd do better on his own. Rose of Sharon grows more touchy as her time draws near. Uncle John, not a tower of strength to begin with, blames the family misfortune on his sinning.

Ma never seems to tire of figuring ways to keep the family intact. Now she devises a plan for Tom's escape. That night the family will pack up and leave Hooper Ranch with Tom tucked into a cave of mattresses on the back of the truck. If guards stop them, they'll say jobs await them down at Weedpatch.

The plan works. Out they drive with no destination in mind except someplace as far as possible from the area where police will be looking for Tom. They stick to back roads to avoid being seen. Late that night Tom, peering out from his shelter, spots a sign at the roadside, "Cotton Pickers Wanted." Tom proposes that the family stop for the night. In the morning they can claim jobs and move into one of the nearby railroad boxcars being used to house pickers. With the whole family working in the cotton fields, it won't be long before they'll eat properly again.

But what about Tom? He mustn't be seen until his face heals.

As usual, Tom is resourceful. He figures out a way to stay with the family and also stay out of trouble. He'll hide in the brush and sleep in a culvert concealed by willows. At night, Ma can bring him food.

Because chill winds signal the approach of the cold and rainy season, it's hard to imagine that this arrangement can last very long. But for the moment, there's none better.  

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