In the 1930s, drought and horrific dust storms turned the once-fertile agricultural lands of mid-America into virtual dust bowls and wastelands. Thousands of destitute farmers packed their families and belongings into and onto their cars and left their homes in search of agricultural work in central California. Their plight and the politics of that day are told in the novel “The Grapes of Wrath. ” Published in 1939 by California writer John Steinbeck, the book won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize.
In his book, Steinbeck champions the downtrodden migrants, as he follows the Joad family from Oklahoma to California. Tom Joad, eldest son, is the book’s protagonist and his efforts to save his family are the core of the book’s story. As Steinbeck writes in his book, “The moving, questing people were migrants now. Those families which had lived on a little piece of land, who had lived and died on forty acres, had now the whole West to rove in.
And they scampered about, looking for work; and the highways were streams of people, and the ditch banks were lines of people. ” Often known as “Okies,” a derogatory term, Dust Bowl immigrants like the fictional Joads did not get a warm welcome from California’s farmers and politicians. The newcomers were herded into slum-like migrant camps, given low wages for back-breaking work, and treated like criminals. Much of this was an effort by local farmers to take advantage of a cheap labor pool and to revent labor organizing that would raise wages.
Much of it was the result of fear on the part of Californians who were faced with a huge influx of ragged families. Whatever the cause, the result wasn’t pretty. It shaped the development of the Midwest, which lost thousands of people and farms, and of California, which had to develop a new social order to handle the transplants. The problems faced by those from Oklahoma are not unlike those faced today by migrant workers from Mexico.