I grew up in the Deep South, a member of a conservative Catholic family.
My family wasn’t ultra conservative, but conservative enough. My dad let it be known he voted Republican. My mother didn’t talk much about her voting habits, but I always assumed she was voting like my dad was. My dad probably assumed the same thing. I’m sure his belief that my mother agreed with him increased family harmony.
I remember my dad talking shit on unions. He explained unions to me by saying if a company was unionized, the owner of the company couldn’t hire the people he (of course the owner of any company must be a man) wanted to hire. Let me be clear. My father never owned a company, never came close to being a member of the owning class. Why he cared about a company owner’s freedom to hire nonunion workers, I have no idea. Like so many working-class Republicans, he was living with some intense cognitive dissonance.
My dad was a hardworking white man who fed his family and paid the bills with no more than a high school diploma. It never occurred to him that other people might not be able to get by with an equal amount of hard work.
My dad backed Gerald Ford in the 1976 election, so my five-year-old self supported Ford too. My kindergarten class got to vote for president. One of the teachers took a refrigerator box and hung photos of Ford and Jimmy Carter inside. We kids went into the box one at a time and put a mark next to the photo of our candidate of choice. I made my mark for Ford, because that’s what my dad would have done.
My parents were not affluent people. I suspect most months my family was just getting by, especially when my sibling and I were in elementary school. However, we all went to the dentist twice a year (thanks to decent insurance through my dad’s job, I suspect), I got new eyeglasses when I needed them, and my sibling and I always had books to read.
We utilized the school and public libraries, but my parents bought us books too. When we brought home a Scholastic order sheet, each of us was allowed to pick out at least a couple of books. When I brought home all A’s on my weekly schoolwork, we’d go to the bookstore in the mall, and my parents would buy me the book of my choice. I don’t remember even once being told there was no money for books.
[amazon template=image&asin=0143039431]In fifth grading reading class, we read a story about migrant workers. Actually, it was a story about the child of migrant workers. The boy was rejected at school for being the new kid. I think it was a pretty light story with a “be kind to new students” theme, but it led the teacher to bring up The Grapes of Wrath. Had any of us seen the movie, she asked. None of us had. Had any of us read the book, she asked. None of us had.
I suspose she thought The Grapes of Wrath was a good cultural representation of migrant workers in the USA. I suppose she was right. But why she thought a group of 10 and 11 year olds might have read a book intended for a much older audience, I’ll never know. If I wasn’t the smartest kid in her classroom, I was certainly the most well-read, and I’d never heard of this book she talked about.
I went home and told my mom I wanted to read The Grapes of Wrath. I don’t know if she’d ever heard of it either. As far as I can tell, my parents were not students of mid 20th century American literature. There were magazines lying around our house–Catholic Digest and Reader’s Digest and Discover and Women’s Day–and my mom read elevated romance novels like Princess Daisy and Sophie’s Choice, but I never saw any Steinbeck or Hemingway or Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor on the coffee table in our mobile home.
In any case, Mom dutifully brought me to the mall to buy the book. I was smart, and my brains were to be my ticket out of our medium-size Deep South town. My mom did everything she could to encourage my academic achievements, including buying me books.
I don’t remember if there was only one edition of The Grapes of Wrath in the bookstore or if I had some choice. What I do know is, I walked out of the bookstore carrying a tome comprised of 500 pages of novel and 600 pages of literary criticism. The book was huge!
I read the book in my spare time, after my homework and chores were done, when I wasn’t playing with dolls or riding my bike. I remember carrying it with me to a Super Bowl party my dad dragged us to. I must have looked like the world’s youngest grad student with that book under my arm.
Thirty-five years later, I didn’t remember much about the story. I recalled it was about a family of migrant workers on the road to California. I recalled the very last scene where a young woman [spoiler alert] who’s just given birth to a stillborn baby breast feeds a man who’d starving to death. I recalled a vague reference to birth control that had titilated me when I was ten.
Throughout my adult years, I occassionally thought about reading The Grapes of Wrath again, but I never did.
At the end of 2016, Nolagirl gave me a $10 gift certificate from a local used bookstore. I wondered what I should get. I remembered I’d wanted to reread The Grapes of Wrath, so I found the cheapest copy on the shelf. It was quite banged up, with a previous owner’s name written on the front cover; it included no literary critisicm.
I made reading the novel one of my goals for 2017, then ignored the book for the next ten months. In October, I decided I should reach at least one of my goals for the year and picked up the book. I finished rereading it before the end of December.
As I suspected, the book is inappropriate reading for a ten year old. In additon to the aforementioned reference to contraceptives and the nursing scene (which only shows the readers the moments before any nursing happens), there’s mention of “dong” size, prostitution, sex out of wedlock, and starving children. None of the references are graphic, and reading such things probably didn’t scar me for life, but if I had a tean-year-old kid, I’d probably want to protect her/him from adult realities for another couple of years.
Upon my first reading, I hadn’t realized the book was about more than a just hungry family looking for work. The book is so much about labor and class struggle. It’s so much about how the owning class takes advantage of workers, how owners will pay workers as little as possible, even if it means the workers and their kids starve. While it doesn’t necessarily jump on the pro-union bandwagon, the book is definitley pro-workplace oranizing and worker solidarity.
While rereading The Grapes of Wrath, I realized the novel had planted many seeds in my mind and had helped form what today are some of my core beliefs. Distrust of and disdain for cops and other authority figures? Check! Love for the underdog? Check! The necessity of workplace organization and worker solidarity? Check! A belief that a group of people can effectively and positively govern themselves? Check! A recognition of the subjugation of women? Check!
Throughout my life, I’d often wondered how I’d become a radical when I’d been raised by a crowd of conservatives. I can’t claim Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath deserves all the credit, but I certainly believe the book played an important part. My parents probably never even realized they’d paid for and brought into the house a novel they would have surely considered a bad influence.
I have always said I grew up in a Union Hall. My Dad was an auto worker, then a Steward , then Chief Steward and finally the Union Benefits Manager. I’ve been a Union member and a Steward as well but I’ve also been a Manager of 400 employees in a health care facility, one that treated ees honestly and fairly,
I truly enjoyed your essay today as it made me feel proud to remember that workers rights are human rights… and greed, in any form, is still greed.
Thank you so much for this message, Mary, and thanks for all your work (and your dad’s too) on behalf of workers. I’m glad you enjoyed this essay. Thanks for reading and commenting.
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