I was excited about my book-to-film club’s choice of a classic I had never read: John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I knew it was about farming but not much more. Oh so little did I know. The dustbowl of the 1930’s in America’s heartland and the growth of the farming industry in California during that same time are major characters. But it’s the Joads, an Oklahoma family looking to better their lives with a move to California, upon whom the story centers. This exodus to the West was made by many others from central states beside Oklahoma, but the derogatory term of “Okie” is what was used to describe them. The Joads’ journey to California is precarious, as they travel Route 66 with a junker of a trunk which they’ve made into a flatbed to hold all ten of the Joads, their dog, an itinerant ex-preacher, and as much of their supplies that they can cram in. This is all they have after the bank takes over their homestead. I was on pins and needles hoping they’d make it. And, they do, more or less. But California is not all that’s promised. It’s a tough dog-eat-dog survival. I couldn’t stop reading because I wanted to see who survives – and how.
The desperation of the Joads and their fellow Oakies is eerily recognizable in today’s world. The unemployed looking for any work that will pay, even if it’s a substandard wage. Banks taking over homes, crops failing due to drought, and the unwelcome harshness that greets the Oakies as they cross into the California border is another mirror looking back in to today of immigrant workers being refused entrance to the Golden State.
So what could be so inspiring about such a sad story we know all too well? It’s the Word of Jim Casy, the ex-preacher who really is still a preacher, just one who no longer follows the dogma of a certain religious sect but rather follows his mind and heart. Casy is a Moses-Jesus figure. He is Moses with the Exodus of the Okie-Israelites into the Egypt of the Promised Land of California, yet he does not take on the role of leader but rather as spiritual support. He is asked to give prayers for the living and dying and refutes his ability to give a good prayer, but that doesn’t matter. This is when Jim becomes more Jesus-like in that he realizes the letter of the law is not necessarily what is so important, but rather that one lives according to the higher law of Divine Love and Unity. This is the Word that Jim contemplates in ramblings he shares with the Joads, especially their son Tom, who becomes one of Jim’s disciples. Casy leaves the Joads, and yes, eventually dies (he is after all a Jesus figure), but he’s still with them in that Tom remembers Casy’s teachings, such as this:
“Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’ have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul… his little piece of soul wasn’t no good ‘less it was with the rest, ‘an was whole. Funny how I remember. Didn’t think I was even listenin…’”(p. 418)
Tom is the disciple who doesn’t realize he’s been indoctrinated until the time comes when he has to leave his family so he may be safe from harm. Tom knows he’ll take on the work of Jim Casy in organizing migrant workers. But he doesn’t seem to quite realize, however, the extent that Casy’s teachings have influenced him, until he says goodbye to his mother:
“I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ – I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.” (p. 419)
The movie was such a disappointment that the only thing my group could think of was that it needs a re-do, and today’s environment is the perfect one for telling this story. (The movie was made a year or two after the book was first published.) The only part of the movie where we didn’t talk amongst ourselves, pretending to watch, was when Tom gives his Word of “I’ll be ever’where.” It’s beautiful Word, written or spoken.