Learn about our valley heritage: Read 'The Grapes of Wrath'

09/30/2007 12:00 AM

09/30/2007 1:23 AM

An anguished father and mother, unable to feed their children, break generations of tradition and leave their homeland for a better life in California.

The husband, wife, children and thousands of others like them make the arduous journey to the Golden State, camping along the way, trying to avoid trouble and the law.

They arrive in the San Joaquin Valley to find not the riches of the American West but a hardscrabble migrant life picking peaches and doing other low-paying jobs. For their labors, they are scorned for threatening the livelihood of those already here.

A modern-day tale of illegal immigrants sneaking into California from Mexico?

No.

It's the plot of John Steinbeck's masterwork, "The Grapes of Wrath."

Published in 1939, the novel is a brilliant and moving account of the Dust Bowl era and the westward migration of thousands of Americans from Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and other midcontinent states.

Steinbeck tells the story of the Joad family, barely subsisting on an Oklahoma farm strangled slowly and mercilessly by eroding topsoil and choking dust storms.

Lured by handbills promising ample opportunity in California, Ma and Pa Joad pile their children and what belongings will fit into a dilapidated Hudson Super-Six. They head west on Route 66.

The journey brings them heartache and tragedy. One son runs off. The grandfather and grandmother die. Yet the Joads cling to hopes for a better life.

They come to Bakersfield. The men must scrape to find what few jobs are available, and even the children pick cotton to raise a few nickels. The women must improvise to cook and clean as the family moves from "Hooverville" shantytowns to a government camp to a railroad boxcar.

The younger children are taunted. Everywhere they turn, the Joads face the stigma of being unkempt "Okies."

Through all their suffering, the Joads grittily cling to their dignity and determinedly pursue an elusive better life.

Their story is an inspiration, and I find it especially meaningful as a resident of Modesto and the valley. It is families like the Joads whose perseverance helped build our valley into one of the world's great agricultural regions.

Those who came here as children or young adults in the 1930s are dying off. You can see it by checking the birthplaces of those whose deaths are recorded in The Bee's obituaries: Atkinson, Neb.; Mulberry, Ark.; Seminole, Okla.; and countless other mid-American towns.

Yes, they all came here legally, unlike those furtively crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. That's a debate for another time.

Today, I encourage every resident of the valley to learn about our heritage by reading "The Grapes of Wrath."

It's important to remember the obstacles the "Okies" overcame to build the communities where we live and work.

It's important to remember that California and the valley still can be a land of opportunity.

And it's important for those of us fortunate enough to live here to remember how much we have, and how much so many people would sacrifice to join us.

Dan Day, who immigrated to Modesto from New Jersey in a Ford Windstar minivan, can be reached at 578-2332 or dday@modbee.com. He blogs at http://thehive.modbee.com/editorsdesk.

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