Home truths from a classic tale of dispossession

This new year is starting to look just like the old, crisis piled on crisis, misery on misery. It’s time we got our heads around what is important and what isn’t. Where better to start than The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s mighty saga of dispossession, penury and bigotry in Depression-era America? If there’s a parable for our times, this is it.

The book is a deep dive into the experience of forced migration. Steinbeck’s fictional Oklahoma farming family, the Joads, represents hundreds of thousands of people from farms east of the Rockies who were forced off their land in the 1930s by prolonged drought and dust storms, mortgage foreclosures and land grabs.

Seeking a new life in California, the family flees across the mountains in a decrepit sedan refashioned into a truck. In the course of a harrowing 2500-kilometre road journey, passengers drop off or die, one of whom is buried beside the road. The long trip features repeated fraught negotiations over scarce money, food and places to stop for the night. 

The main focus of the book is what happens to the Joads in California, notably to eldest son Tom and his mother, who we know only as “Ma” – truly the family’s powerful, beating heart.

With a statewide glut of migrant farm labour, big landholders stoke public prejudice against newcomers, focusing especially on preventing workers from uniting to secure a living wage. Their relentless efforts force wages down to the point where migrants are literally starving.

The family discovers that “Hoovervilles” – the migrant camps and shanty towns that sprang up across the country through the Depression – are anything but safe havens, subject to raids and night-time torching by police with help from local biffos. 

Finally, the long dry comes to an end with the kind of big rain event we’ve seen a lot of recently, in Australia and elsewhere. Rising waters force migrants, including the Joads, to find alternative shelter wherever they can.

In a nameless barn on a nameless farm, The Grapes of Wrath comes to a dramatic, unforgettable conclusion. Ma Joad takes command in a moment of supreme kindness to a starving, dying man, a moment that was sadly absent from John Ford’s celebrated 1940 movie of the same name.

Unlike much of what has unfolded in recent times, the climatic events which underlie and shape Steinbeck’s migrant story are not the work of man. But what happens to his people as they struggle with the consequences of these events is entirely relevant to us today.

Steinbeck’s Weedpatch Camp, the only place the Joads feel safe, is based on one of the facilities operated across 1930s America by the federal Resettlement Administration. A virulent anti-migrant sentiment saw this New Deal agency and its instigator, President Franklin Roosevelt, accused of being un-American and even communist. Trumpism is not a new phenomenon.

Migration is again in the spotlight, but now it’s a global story. Here, especially since Tampa in 2001, just as in the US during and after Donald Trump’s presidency, homeless, penniless migrants have become a favourite target of politicians using insecurity as a political weapon.

Migration has featured in our human story ever since we climbed down from the trees; only in our later history have we settled into “permanent” habitats. Now, with a growing climate threat to lives and livelihoods, people are again on the move. Mass migration is looming as this century’s biggest, most consequential issue. 

It’s happening already. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that over the past 15 years, the number of people displaced by climate change and natural disasters averaged out at 21.5 million in any given year. Modelling by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics and Peace puts the number of people displaced in this way in 2050 – a mere 27 years away – at 1.2 billion people.

The developed West will not be untouched. Last July saw mass evacuations due to weather events in southern France and the US states of Kentucky and California. In Australia, as we are all too aware, catastrophic fire and flood have forced many to relocate long-term.

The greatest dislocation will happen in hot places. Climate models for coming decades overwhelmingly point to forced retreat from some of the most densely populated parts of the planet as they become uninhabitable. The rest of the world, Australia included, must learn somehow to accommodate the victims. The Grapes of Wrath is a pretty good place to begin that lesson.

As the Californian psychologist Louis Cozolino said, it’s not the fittest that will survive, but the nurtured. However much we need brilliant ideas and masculine strength, a civil future rests above all on compassion. Nothing else comes close.

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