“Remember when we…?”
Those anecdotes are the stuff relationships are made of, our own series of personal legends, the stories that we can roll around in our memories to remind ourselves, and each other, that we have lived. The more often we get to open up that phrase, the better – it means that we’ve done something worth recounting, and that we’re with the same people now as when that something happened. That phrase is far better than the more passive, more anonymous “Did you see…?”
For me, it’s the anecdotes that the Joads tell in The Grapes of Wrath that make the book a classic. The social commentary about corporate disregard for people (and the land they live on) is more relevant now than ever, but the same points might have been made with an essay on the Dustbowl of the 1930s. What makes the novel so great is the description of how those social forces affect one family in particular; it’s the human impact on the Joads. And what makes them human?
“Remember when we stole a house?”
WTF?! You mean stole from a house, right? You couldn’t actually steal a building, could you?
“Sure, got it a mile an’a half east of here an’ drug it. Was a family livin’ there, an’ they moved away. Grampa an’ Pa an’ my brother Noah like to took the whole house, but she wouldn’t come. They only got part of her. That’s why she looks so funny on one end. They cut her in an’ drug her over with twelve head of horses and two mules. They was goin’ back for the other half an’ stick her together again, but before they got there Wink Manley come with his boys and stole the other half. Pa an’ Grampa was pretty sore, but a little later them an’ Wink got drunk together an’ laughed their heads off about it. Wink, he says his house is at stud, an’ if we’ll bring our’n over an’ breed ’em we’ll maybe get a litter of crap houses. Wink was a great ol’fella when he was drunk. After that him an’ Pa an’ Grampa was friends. Got drunk together ever’ chance they got.”
They hate to say a ‘d’ or a ‘g’ at the end of a word, and their grammar may be off (‘drug’ instead of ‘dragged’; “like to took” instead of ‘would have liked to have taken’; “they was”), but it’s a hell of a story. First, there’s the thought of stealing a house in the first place. Next, that another neighbor would have the same idea at the same moment. Finally, a decent joke: get those half houses back together and they’ll breed outhouses like pups. That’s the kind of story that’s worth retelling – one that could single-handedly form the basis of a friendship.
The anecdote serves a purpose in the novel too. It’s the way Tom Joad knows that the whole area has been abandoned rather than a single house. If just one family had left, their house would have been stolen. These stories form the landscape of the people who live there. Even an unlatched gate can be a mine of information for those who know the area.
“If Ma was anywheres about, that gate’d be shut an’ hooked. That’s one thing she always done – seen that gate was shut.” His eyes were warm. “Ever since the pig got in over to Jacobs’ an’ et the baby. Milly Jacobs was in a family way, an’ she went ravin’. Never did get over it. Touched ever since. But Ma took a lesson from it. She never lef’ that pig gate open ‘less she was in the house herself. Never did forget. No- they’re gone- or dead.”
A pig “et” (ate) a baby? Horrible, but I suppose it must happen, very rarely, when pigs and babies are in close proximity. It’s a danger that’s almost unimaginable to a city-dweller like me, but it’s not exactly a daily occurrence for these Okies either. It’s shocking enough for Milly Jacobs to lose her mind, for Ma Joad to never leave a gate unlocked again and for Tom Joad to retell the story. An unlocked gate means Ma Joad is gone too; the anecdote makes it impossible that she just forgot.
I called the Joads and the Jacobs Okies just now, but I didn’t mean it. The phrase is tied to that particular time and place, referring to the migrants who moved away from their useless farmland (in Oklahoma and other states affected by the Dustbowl) to find work elsewhere. As Tom Joad shrewdly observes,
“Okie use’ ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you’re a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you’re scum. Don’t mean nothing itself, it’s the way they say it.”
Now, they might be called “hicks”, “yokels” or “hill-billies”, with some of the mistrust and fear that is reserved for communities of “travelers”. They would be the people it might feel safe to look down upon: people with bad manners, bad taste, bad education and terrible teeth. This is a failure of empathy on our part, but Steinbeck tries to bridge that gap, to remind us of their humanity with their stories. We might have more patience for illiteracy when we consider the Joads’ experience with the written word, the legal documents produced by the banks and estate agents:
Ever’ time Pa seen writin’, somebody took somepin away from ‘im.
“an’ Ma ain’t nobody you can push aroun’ neither. I seen her beat the hell out of a tin peddler with a live chicken one time ’cause he give her a argument. She had the chicken in one han’, an’ the ax in the other, about to cut its head off. She aimed to go for that peddler with the ax, but she forgot which hand was which, an’ she takes after him with the chicken. Couldn’ even eat that chicken when she got done. They wasn’t nothing but a pair a legs in her han’. Grampa throwed his hip outa joint laughin’.”