The Grapes of Wrath takes place during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, opening on an Oklahoma landscape where the sun is severe, crops scarce. Tom Joad heads to his family’s farm after being released from prison. He learns that his family has been evicted from the property, which explains why the house has fallen into disrepair, with the building off its foundation, the fences gone, the outhouse tipped, and cotton growing haphazardly. Tom finds the family at Uncle John’s cramped home as they prepare for a long journey to California in search of work, a journey many others are also taking. The attachment to the Oklahoma land is so strong for Grampa Joad that he cannot bear to leave it, dying shortly after being removed from his longtime environment.
As the definitive throughway for cross-country travel, Route 66 provides the means by which the migrants access California. It is “the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership,…from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there” (118). Steinbeck describes Route 66 in detail in several of the intercalary chapters, including one in which a waitress at a hamburger stand bestows kindness on a stranger and his two small children, and another that shows how broken cars and broken dreams clog the “mother road.”
In California, “there was a Hooverville on the edge of every town,” where migrant people camp together and support each other (234). The Joads experience the conditions at a Hooverville when they cross the desert into California: “There was no order in the camp; little gray tents, shacks, cars were scattered about at random” (241). These camps—named after President Herbert Hoover, who was blamed for the Great Depression—often get broken up by law enforcement to keep people from settling. The Joads don’t stay long, getting back on the road after an incident in which Casy takes the fall for Tom during an altercation with a deputy.
The Joads’ next stop is Weedpatch, a government camp run by an internal committee, negating the need for outside forces to impose their will. Unlike the Hoovervile camps, there are sanitary facilities, and “no litter about the tents. The ground of the street had been swept and sprinkled” (288). Here, the people seem to be more at ease, even throwing dances every Saturday night. Unable to find work, though, the Joads leave Weedpatch just a month into their stay, moving on to Hooper Ranch, a peach farm ripe with controversy. On the plus side, the workers have cabins in which to sleep. But the migrants find their wages decreasing as more and more workers show up, while at the camp store, food prices continue to rise. Casy, out of jail, leads a strike against the owners of the camp, costing him his life. Casy’s sacrifice spurs Tom to lead the people, but the family must leave again when Tom impulsively murders the man who killed Casy.
This time, the Joads end up outside a cotton field, where many of the migrants live in boxcars: “They [boxcars] made good houses, water-tight and draftless… No windows, but the wide doors stood open” (409). Working the fields, the family lives well for the first time since arriving in California, able to purchase proper food and new clothing. Tom, afraid of being recognized, lives in a nearby hollowed-out wild blackberry bush, where he stays until Ruthie’s verbal slip-up forces him to part ways with the brood. Workers continue to pour in, cutting into the Joads’ pay. Finally, the rains come, and the boxcar camp is flooded, causing the family to find dry shelter in a barn down the road. Here, Rose of Sharon performs a great act of charity, offering her breast milk to save a dying man’s life.