“She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build laughter out of inadequate materials . . . She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
One of the beauties of reading classics again is the heightened ability to empathize in different seasons of life. Reading The Grapes of Wrath with my 15 year-old daughter, is an entirely different experience than reading it as a teenager. I see it now through the eyes of a grandmother, a mother, a sister and a daughter. But it is the position of Mrs. Joad that is particularly striking for me as a mother and grandmother. Steinbeck’s passage above reflects an unconscious notion many mothers feel as they strive to build strength and integrity in their families.
Becoming re-acquainted with Steinbeck’s tale of the great Dust Bowl migration displays the timeless power of literature. As we immerse in the story of a formerly middle-class family cast off from their one-time prosperous farm, forced to migrate with little more than the clothes on their backs, a few family members in extremities of health, with little money and facing cruel prejudice wherever they go, I’m struck by how capricious our relative ease and comfort can be and how blithely we view it.
I relate particularly to Mrs. Joad, as she struggles to keep her family together, knowing how important that is, yet watching the vicissitudes of fate and chance play their hand cruelly against her best intentions, and my heart aches with her mother heart. As she buries both parents along the way due to the extremities of travel and little chance of rest and sustenance, I feel I can understand her heartbreak and agony. So determined is she to keep the family together that when the men make plans to split up, she takes up a jack handle and threatens to wallop Pa if he forces his plan. The formerly mild-mannered and temperate Ma is forced to such means to do what she believes is right. Tragically, despite her best efforts the family is split up. Steinbeck describes in vivid detail how the tragedy of the Dust Bowl, corporate and individual greed, and small-minded prejudice brought such devastation to hard-working, happy, God-fearing families all across the plains.
The lessons of The Grapes of Wrath are many. But the one that is resonating with me currently is how displacement is such an ongoing human tragedy. It strips dignity, creates prejudice, subjects the innocent to violence, and destroys families. While we have no great forced migrations occurring in America today, around the world they are an ongoing reality. We have displaced Mexican children swamping our borders, the Syrian refugee crisis is daily in the news, Rwandan refugee camps burst at the seams, and there are continuing crises in Sudan and Somalia.
Watching the heartbreak of Mrs. Joad is an important exercise in learning to have a heart for refugees and for the disenfranchised around the globe. Mrs. Joad stands as an icon of the tragedy that is repeated around the world as families are forced to flee their homes. Through one of his characters, Steinbeck poses the question, “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?” It is a good question to ask ourselves. The next time we’re tempted to dismiss the plight of the refugee, whether at our border, or elsewhere on the globe, let’s remember Mrs. Joad, and say a prayer for all those in her place.