1) Why did the Joads leave Oklahoma in the 1930s?
- Firstly, the practice of straight-plowing must be addressed; farmers on the Great Plains believed in plowing perfectly straight lines (contour plowing was rarely used; there were even straight-plowing contests for prize money in the Great Plains), which was proven to be the worst strategy imaginable when the rain stopped in the early-1930s. Since the price for crops was incredibly low, the basic strategy for most farmers was to plow-up more land in order to plant more crops, and make money by volume. The problem was that most every farmer was doing so, and by the mid-1930s, the tractor enters the picture on an epic scale. The Joads, like thousands of other tenant farmers, were "Tractored-Out", in that the landowners decided to plow up (and harrow) more land with the tractor, and the tenant farmers were in the way (unemployment due to technology . . . and the Dust Bowl). One trick the landowners used to persuade their renters to leave was to use the tractor to knock-off their small house from the foundation, which is what happened to the Joads. With the promise of work and decent wages in California (the infamous orange handbill), the benefit of going West far outweighed the cost of staying in Oklahoma.
2) Why did Tom Joad decide to violate his parole by leaving the state line?
- The main character of the book was just released from prison (on parole) for killing a
man in a bar fight. The main concern of his parents was that if he left Oklahoma, he would violate his parole. Tom Joad decided to gamble that if he didn't get in any more trouble, the Oklahoma authorities would view trying to track him down as too costly. The clincher for his decision to violate parole, of course, was the idea that he (and his family) would be working in California, and that their standard of living would increase.
3) The Burials of Grandpa and Grandma Joad
- Grandpa Joad (Tom's grandfather), never really wanted to leave the homestead, and not
long after leaving Oklahoma, died of a stroke in Ivy and Sairy Wilson's tent (the first fellow migrants going West that the Joads came across). The agony of benefit v. cost in terms of what to do with their loved one's remains was addressed. It was viewed as too costly to involve the nearest coroner, and spend $40 ($630 now) in the cheapest, legal way to resolve the crisis. Instead, Grandpa Joad was buried not far from the highway; it was even decided not to leave a mound of dirt on the grave, just in case his remains were found, and he was somehow traced back to them. But, why did the Joads decide to spend $40 when Grandma Joad died? Not long after they crossed the California state line, the Joads were stopped at a check-point to see if they were bringing in any fruits or vegetables. Mama Joad refused to let the officer search the back of their 1925 Dodge truck (jalopy), but did show him how sick Grandma was, and he let them pass . . . well, Grandma was already dead by that point. Even though the Joads had been warned by those heading back East that there weren't any decent jobs available, the Joads believed there was still hope - so much so that Mom rode with a dead older relative next to her in the truck (at least she didn't strap Grandma Joad to the roof rack of the Family Truckster), and the family spent $40, most of the rest of their money, for a coroner in Barstow to take care of Grandma, since they almost certainly would be working very soon. Since they were past the check-point, very close to the orchards, etc., the Joads figured it would be less costly to properly take care of Grandma Joad at that point.
4) The Waitress in the Cafe
- A strategy Steinbeck used throughout the book was to feature interludes from other points-of-view, in order to provide more context for the struggles of the migrant farmers. One such interlude focused on a cafe on Route 66, in either Texas or New Mexico. A waitress at the cafe had decided a while ago to only invest her time, focus, and energies on truckers, and no one else. Truckers, if treated right, would come back, time-and-time again, and tell others about their experience, which meant more truckers as customers, and more tips, of course. So, when migrant farmers stopped in, trying to, for example, buy a loaf of bread that cost 15 cents for a dime, she had a dilemma. She didn't want to have an unpleasant scene with any migrant farmers that would make the truckers uncomfortable, so she (benefit v. cost) decided to sell the bread for a dime. She even, just to get the migrant family out of the cafe, took a another penny from the migrant farmer so his two kids could have a piece of candy each, even though the candy cost a nickel.
5) Traveling Caravans of "Okies" on Route 66
- According to Steinbeck, it did not take too long for Westward migrant farmers to group
together, forming mobile communities. The costs of grouping included rules of conduct, punishment for violating the rules (#1 punishment: being shunned); all for the main benefit of security. Another main cost was that if a family wanted to travel faster, they were unable to do so. In essence, these groupings became a sort of modern Wagon Train - the Joads experienced something of the sort when they decided, with Ivy and Sairy Wilson, to make a two-car caravan, mostly in order to be sure they were able to get through the mountains in New Mexico.
6) Why did Californians (in the book) hate "Okies"?
- Steinbeck described a strategy that went something like this: In order to keep wages very low, and to maximize profits for the California landowners, a huge surplus of workers was needed - in other words, a situation was created for their great benefit (e.g. issue an orange handbill in the East, in order to bring a surplus of workers to California). But the cost of this decision led to the hatred of the "Okies" (a term that was used pejoratively by Californians in the book), since now, with all these idle (and angry) unemployed migrant farmers, their property was now obviously at risk. So, another strategy was created, in order to minimize the cost - "Union-Busting" strategies were employed (e.g. harassment, jail, physical attacks, lynching).
7) The Market Experience for the "Okies"
- A constant source of frustration for the tenant / migrant farmers was that they just could not get a fair price, whether buying or selling. The desire for immediate cash outweighed the luxury of haggling or walking away. One example from the book illustrates the plight of these farmers when trying to sell an item: A used car salesman purchased a vehicle from a farmer for $10 ($160 now) and the farmer, before he went West, saw his car for sale at the lot for $75 ($1200 now). An example that showed their untenable position when purchasing items occurred when the Joads were picking peaches for five cents a box, and Mama Joad went to the grocery store owned by the landowner. The cost of driving to the nearest town for cheaper prices would be greater than paying up to 25% more for virtually everything in the store. Expectations for a decent meat & potatoes dinner for the Joad family after their first day of work in California were dashed when very little was purchased on $1 credit.
8) The (Grapes of) Wrath of the Migrant Farmers in California
- During the Great Depression, there was actually a surplus of food in America, but far too many people were desperate for food. One of the reasons for this historic reality was analyzed in this book. Cherries, peaches, oranges, grapes, and potatoes were being grown, but the market prices for those crops were so low, that most California growers couldn't make a profit unless they slashed wages to ridiculously low levels. So, on some farms and orchards, the fruit dropped to the ground and rotted, and potatoes were thrown into a river. But, linked to the distrust and hatred for the "Okies", orchard owners doused these fallen oranges with kerosene, so the "Okies" couldn't have free fruit (and then stay in the area longer) - some potato farmers even paid hired guns to keep "Okies" from "Potato Fishing" in the river.
Wages were far too low (kids were actually starving to death in the Hooverville camps, which actually happened during the Great Depression), yet there was a bounty of food available . . . a desire to organize against the California landowners was growing . . . towards the very end of the book, Tom Joad decided to become a labor leader for migrant farmers (he gave his "I'll be there" speech to his Mom, in his hideout, a dark rabbit hole), deciding that the benefit of working to get higher wages for migrant farmers outweighed the cost of leaving his family, and being arrested or murdered.
9) The "Association of Farmers" in California
- It's worth noting that the "Association" immediately denounced their portrayal when the book was published (almost 500,000 copies of the book were sold in one year). That being said, it was accurate that the "Association" colluded in setting wages, and hired some not-very-nice folks to break any attempt to form a union. The "Association" was even mentioned in a parody of "Roll out the Barrel" called "Roll Out the Pickets", about the California Cotton Strike of 1939.
10) Why were wage-earners referred to as "Reds"?
- When an "Okie" would ask a landowner "what is a Red", invariably, the answer was that a "Red" was anyone that wanted a wage that was higher than what they wanted to give . . . it was an over-used, collective term for wage-workers wanting a fair wage during the Great Depression.