After reading a column by the editor of one of the other farm newspapers about favourite books he reads over and over, I decided to pull my copy of one of those titles off the shelf and reread it myself.
It was 80 years ago this year that John Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath was published, yet so many themes seem relevant today.
First of all, it is a demonstration of the power of climate change to disrupt lives. The Dust Bowl conditions of the 1930s were the result of a short-term climate change. The drought lasted nine years in Canada’s Palliser Triangle, for instance. Year after year crops would be planted, the heat would come but not the rain, and the crops would shrivel and be covered by blowing soil.
The Grapes of Wrath follows the effect of all of this on one family, the Joads. Like many in Kansas and Oklahoma and other U.S. prairie states, they didn’t own their land. Some had once owned their farms but couldn’t meet the mortgage payments and so farms were repossessed by the banks. Most of the farmers became sharecroppers, growing crops and giving a share to the landowner instead of rent.
As the years of drought wore on, the landowners saw the return from their land diminished and decided they had to do things differently. I couldn’t help think of all the schemes over recent years to package large parcels of Canadian farmland together and sell them to Asian or European investors.
Next, along came technological change. The sharecroppers had cropped small parcels using horses or mules. The landowners realized that by using powerful Caterpillar tractors pulling huge planters they could farm hundreds of acres with only one hired employee.
The tenant farmers were told they must vacate the land. To make sure they’d never come back, often their ramshackle houses were knocked down.
About the same time, large orchard owners in California distributed thousands of flyers offering good jobs picking fruit. Desperate for work, the farmers loaded up their families in old junker trucks and cars, and headed west.
Such desperate migrations are everyday news in 2019. Usually we hear about overloaded leaky boats filled with Africans trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, too often with tragic results as the boats sink and people drown. Then there’s the relative trickle of refugee claimants who walk across the border into Canada from the U.S. at remote crossings.
And then, of course, there are the infamous caravans coming from Central America through Mexico that are filled with rapists, murderers, drug dealers and terrorists according the U.S. President Donald Trump who wants to build a wall to keep them out.
All these people are foreigners to the countries of their destination so fear of the stranger is understandable. But the migration of hundreds of thousand of Americans from one area of their country to another evoked the same resentments among Californians. The “Okies”, as they were called, were often harassed at the California border by state police. When they huddled together in makeshift roadside camps while they searched for work, they were often pushed out. If they got too settled vigilante groups from nearby towns might assemble to burn the camps.
And of course with so many people looking for work the large orchard owners kept lowering the pay they offered and people couldn’t make enough to get by – yet they couldn’t leave California because they had no money and no home to return to. So they stayed, and despite their struggles, little by little they settled in and helped build a prosperous California, just as generations of immigrants to Canada have done here.◊