I did well in school. English was my favorite subject and I typically did any reading required of me, in earnest. But somehow I graduated high school without having read any of the classic literature that teenagers are usually forced to read. Being an avid reader and writer, I’ve felt ashamed about this. I value being well-read as something that really should be on my list of attainments. Over the summer I was having a conversation with my mother-in-law about the Great American Read, and while I certainly read a number of the books on the list, I was embarrassed at not having read so many of the traditional texts. So, I’ve taken it upon myself to try to alternate between modern literature and classic literature. I landed on beginning my most recent endeavor with The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I’ll be honest in saying that it was not my most favorite book, but it was an incredibly important book,relative to capturing a moment of U.S. history in narrative form. As I was reading, it struck me how accurate it is that we say that history repeats itself. Steinbeck may have written at a different time about the plight of a different faction of people, but he might as well have written it as a foreshadowing of modern-day America.
Spoiler alert: if you are chomping at the bit to read The Grapes of Wrath yourself – as I just know most of you must be – I am going to discuss the book in this article.
First,a little background for those of you who are not in love with history the way that I am. The novel was published in 1939 following the worst of the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and lasted until the late 30s. It follows the story of the Joad family, who was already dirt poor living in Oklahoma as tenant farmers. A consequence of the Great Depression, the family is forced off the land they have been farming and begin the trek to California in search of what seems promising to be a better life. They encounter endless hardships from cover to cover, including the brutal rejection of their fellow Americans.The story never wraps up in a neat little bow at the end, leaving the reader to wonder what will ever happen to the unlucky Joads.
Why is this relevant?
We find ourselves in quite the same situation during present times. There has been a national uproar over the issue of immigration and refugees for quite some time now. I’m not here to write about right or wrong;I’m not here to pass judgement about your opinions or beliefs regarding this matter. I don’t think there is a clear-cut answer that rectifies the situation. There are people that need protection on one side of the border, and there are people that need protection on the other side of the border. Instead, I want to focus on why we should have empathy. We’ve been here before,folks. Shouldn’t we try to learn from our past and choose better? Perhaps analyzing the consequences of the migration of past Americans presented to us in The Grapes of Wrath will help us better reflect on and problem-solve our current crisis.
There are two major similarities between 1930s America and today that are worth discussing as we form opinions about what is going on at our nation’s border.
The disruption of the family unit
The Joads are initially traveling with three generations of their family. We have to remember that the characters – who were a reflection of actual Americans during the time period – were impoverished, uneducated, and likely somewhat unhealthy to start. They lived rough lives and lived on the very little resources they had at hand. They lived in a house that we probably wouldn’t think to shelter our pets in in the worst of circumstances. They did not have healthcare and they did not have access to sanitary practices that we consider a given in today’s world. So when the Joads began a voyage cross-country with the clothes on their back, they were already at a general disadvantage. Along the way, family members were lost to death and circumstance, with one character evading the police for a misunderstood crime committed previously, resulting in breaking parole to search for a better life. During this most arduous journey, the Joads could not even rely on the comfort of family.
Immigrants from Latin American countries who have gathered at the border are the Joads incarnate. Fast forward almost one-hundred years from the novel time-period, and we are still facing the exact same situation. We have a group of people who have faced poverty, starvation, and disease in their own countries, traveled hundreds of miles on foot with very little belongings, not knowing where their next meal will come from, with generations of weak family members in tow, in search of a better life. There are two glaring differences: the population today are not already U.S. citizens and they are also fleeing danger and violence. Today’s immigrants have two more strikes against them than the Joads. It is bad enough to live in squalor without basic needs being met, and then you have to layer on a constant fear of rape and murder. I cannot imagine being a mother having to watch her children fall asleep at night with empty bellies or to not be able to prevent the number of other horrors that are happening to children in these countries. I cannot fathom losing family members to preventable deaths, solely because I was unfortunate enough to be born to a certain area of the world. While this is not directly in the control of American citizens and many feel that it is not possible or our duty to rescue everyone on the planet, I empathize with these poor souls.
Facing rejection born out of fear
The Joads were farmers and wanted to continue to be farmers. They had decided to travel to California because they believed there would be work for them there; not because they wanted a free ride, but because they wanted to be productive citizens who had meals to eat. Mrs. Joad, the matriarch, said multiple times that she just wanted to live in a little white house surrounded by orange trees. They dreamt that this distant land would be a utopia, a community that they would be able to join and contribute to. They didn’t move because they want to, but out of necessity. The family quickly learned that their fellow Americans who were not suffering were not so welcoming. No matter where they went, they faced rejection out of fear that the newcomers were bringing criminality, inferior ways of life, and a negative impact on the economy. The Joads were driven out of where they rested, mistrusted, and taken advantage of simply because they weren’t from whichever “here” they traveled through.
Immigrants from all over the world are still desperately seeking the American dream. However, those of us who have achieved the dream – face it, none of us are “from” the U.S. – seem to think that there is no more room for it in today’s world. The majority of immigrants who are seeking asylum probably want to be productive members of society. They probably just want their children to eat warm meals and sleep in warm beds. But out of fear of the unknown, we are angry about it in this country once again. Once again, I’m not saying there is an easy solution. I don’t think that we should completely reject our brothers and sisters that happened by chance to be born in other countries, but I also do not think we should just open the border and shout, “Come on in!” There will always be wolves hiding in sheep’s clothing; there will always be those who have ill intentions that are mixed with those who truly seek asylum. We also must be sure that we really are able to offer any immigrants a better life. It takes preparation and planning to welcome an extremely needy and impoverished people. If there are no jobs to be had, no skills or training offered, no clean, affordable housing, then what can we offer other than a slightly less dangerous replica of the situation they faced in their native lands? It’s also important to be sure that we are not going to add to an already over-burdened and seriously misappropriated welfare system. This isn’t an easy topic; there isn’t an easy solution. But I empathize with this facet of humankind who finds themselves in such unfortunate circumstances that they are forced to flee the only home they have ever known, only to face the rejection of the home that they hold to such a superior depiction in their minds.
As individual American citizens, we cannot realistically solve the world’s problems. We cannot always make decisions that are based on our hearts rather than our heads. But it doesn’t threaten national security to put yourself in the place of another person and sympathize with their plight. Have you ever had to use sawdust as flour? Have you ever given birth in an abandoned train car? Have you had to look your child in the eyes knowing you could not feed him? If your answer is no to these questions, be thankful, for you are incredibly fortunate. If your answer is yes to any of these questions, you should be most understanding and sympathetic, having survived similar hardships and are still alive to read my words today. We live where we live because of luck or the choices of our ancestors or both. Any of us could just as easily be seeking refuge with a twist of fate. I don’t ask you to blindly welcome the masses. I ask you to not be cold-hearted, to be careful with your choice of words. To learn from history, to help us make better choices than our predecessors.