By Life Positive
This excerpt from John Steinbeck’s powerful novel, Grapes of Wrath, highlights the dignity and plight of the underprivileged
The car jolted along. Ahead, a little row of red lanterns stretched across the highway.
‘Detour, I guess,’ Tom said. He slowed the car and stopped it, and immediately a crowd of men swarmed about the truck… One man leaned in the window, and the warm smell of whisky preceded him.
‘Where you think you’re goin’?’ he thrust a red face near to Tom’s face.
Tom stiffened. His hand crept down to the floor and felt for the jack handle. Ma caught his arm and held it powerfully. Tom said: ‘Well…’ and then his voice took on a servile whine. ‘We’re strangers here,’ he said. ‘We heard about they’s work in a place called Tulare.’
‘Well, goddamn it, you’re going the wrong way. We ain’t gonna have no goddamn Okies in this town.’
Tom’s shoulders and arms were rigid, and a shiver went through him. Ma clung to his arm.
Tom whined: ‘Which way is it at, mister?’
You turn right around an’ head north. An’ don’t come back till the cotton’s ready.’
Tom shivered all over. ‘Yes, sir,’ he said. He put the car in reverse, backed around and turned.. . Ma released his arm and patted him softly. And Tom tried to restrain his hard smothered sobbing.
‘Don’ you mind,’ Ma said, ‘Don’ you mind.’
Tom blew his nose out the window and wiped his eyes on his sleeve. ‘The son-of-bitches.’ ‘You done good,’ Ma said tenderly. ‘You done just good.’
Tom swerved into a side dirt road, ran a hundred yards and turned off his lights and motor. ‘Where you goin’? Ma demanded…
‘Gonna look for that gov’ment camp,’ Tom said, ‘A fella said they don’ let no deputies in there. Ma – I got to get away from ‘em. I’m scairt I’ll kill one.’
‘Easy, Tom.’ Ma soothed him. ‘Easy, Tommy. You done good once. You can do it again.’
‘Yeah, an’ after a while I won’t have no decency lef’.’
‘Easy,’ she said. ‘You got to have patience. Why, Tom – us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people – we go on.’
‘We take a beatin’ all the time.’
‘I know,’ Ma chuckled. ‘Maybe that makes us tough. Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But Tom, we keep a-comin’. Don’t you fret none, Tom. A different time’s comin’.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I don’t know how.’
They entered the town and Tom turned down a side street to avoid the centre. By the street lights he looked at his mother. Her face was quiet and a curious look was in her eyes, eyes like the timeless eyes of a statue. Tom put out his right hand and touched her on the shoulder. He had to. And then he withdrew his hand. ‘Never heard you talk so much in my life,’ he said.
‘Wasn’t never so much reason,’ she said.
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