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The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck

THE STORY CHAPTER 30

Outside the Joads' boxcar the floodwater creeps higher and higher. Soon it will spill over the threshold.

Wainwright thinks it's time to get out, but Pa Joad has another idea. They ought to build a levee. Wainwright protests, "Be a lot a work, an' then she might come over anyways." Pa has no argument with that, and when he's just about to agree, the problem is resolved in another way altogether.

Rose of Sharon has gone into labor. That settles it; they've got to build the bank. Most of the neighbors' men grab shovels and start to dig. A fury of work overcomes them. Gradually, the embankment grows. The men are weary, but the fight against the ever-rising tide continues into the evening.

Inside the boxcar, another kind of struggle goes on. Rose of Sharon, with the help of Ma and Mrs. Wainwright, painfully tries to get her baby born.

Outside, the battle between water and mud has reached an impasse. Suddenly, a big cottonwood tree topples into the stream, tearing a breach in the bank. Water pours through and the men scatter to save themselves.

Almost at the same time, Rose of Sharon's baby emerges, a blue shriveled little mummy. "Never breathed," says Mrs. Wainwright. "Never was alive."

The surging water engulfs the Joads' truck. Al rushes to the rescue, but he's too late. It won't start. He's fixed and coddled the truck all the way from Oklahoma, but now it's dead. His job is finished. Later, when the family resolves to leave the flooded boxcar, Al remains behind with Aggie and the other Wainwrights.

For the third time since we've met them, the Joads face the problem of disposing of a dead member of the family. Uncle John at first refuses to bury the dead baby, but he changes his mind. He says, "I'll do it. Come on, give it to me." We see why he's suddenly so willing to do the job when he carries the baby's apple-crate coffin not to a burial plot but to a stream alongside the road. He sets the box into the current and says fiercely, "Go down an' tell 'em. Go down in the street an' rot an' tell 'em that way."


Who would have thought that Uncle John had it in him to do something like that? His action reminds us of the Biblical tale of the baby Moses. Rather than see her child grow up in bondage, Moses' mother sets the infant adrift in a basket. Moses "goes down" to Egypt, is picked up by Pharoah's daughter, and ultimately frees the people from slavery. What message is the dead Joad baby to deliver? We have to assume that Uncle John wants the world to know of the migrants' piteous condition.

With conditions in the boxcar as dismal as can be, Ma announces, "We're a-gettin' outa here, gettin' to higher groun'." The six remaining Joads march up the highway and find a dry refuge in a hillside barn. Off in a dim corner of the barn lay a weak and starving man. The man's little boy explains that his father hasn't eaten in six days. Last night the boy stole bread, but the father couldn't keep it down. "He's dirty, I tell you! He's starvin' to death.... Got to have soup or milk."

Ma glances at Rose of Sharon. The two women look deep into each other's eyes, speaking without words. Which of them thought of it first is hard to tell, but Rose of Sharon says, "Yes."

She asks everyone to leave her alone with the dying man. She bares her breast and lets him drink for his life.

As the book ends Rose of Sharon smiles mysteriously. Perhaps the story is meant to end enigmatically. Those of us who have accompanied the Joads on their long journey, however, may sense that Rose of Sharon, too, has finally joined her mother, her brother Tom, and Jim Casy in recognizing what it means to be human.

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© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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