How Dust Bowl Affected the Residents of Oklahoma as Shown in The Grapes of Wrath

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The events that occurred during and after the Dust Bowl impacted so many people that resided in the state of Oklahoma as well as the surrounding states. In The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Tom Joad’s family lived in the affected area of Oklahoma. They were former farmers that were victims of the dust storm, in which it caused damage to their property and loss of property. Due to the storm, they were also affected by economic problems due to the loss of crops. The Dust Bowl took place in the 1930s during the era of the Great Depression and severe droughts. John Steinbeck uses this historical event to educate the readers so they would understand the impact that had on the lives of the residents, especially farmers.

The storm had caused major consequences dealing with health problems, economic problems, climate changes, as well as people wanting to migrate to a different state. He also focused on the abuse of capitalism and tactics banks used on victims that could no longer afford their property. The Dust Bowl caused impacts on the health of those who stayed throughout the storm. John Steinbeck wrote, “Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around the doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes” (3). Steinbeck describes the storm to readers so that they would understand how terrible the winds were and also the ways residents would try the best they could to protect themselves and their family from getting dust inside their home to prevent getting sick.

According to Vellore Arthi in her research “The Dust was Long Settling: Human Capital and the Last Impact of the American Dust Bowl” she described the situation as “In light of this literature (The Grapes of Wrath), the Dust Bowl’s shocks to health and incomes would be expected to have non-negligible adverse effects on wellbeing in later-life; however, these long-run human costs have been little studied, meaning we may currently underestimate the full toll of this important event in American history” (197). The tiny dust particle is being described to be similar to pollen, which could lead to health problems to those exposed without protection, compare to those who used some sort of protection, which reduced their chances of getting sick. According to Neil Larry Shumsky in his article “Dust Disease, Death and Deity: Constructing and Deconstructing the “Dust Bowl”,” he claimed that “Dust became a serious threat to health and life by providing an environment in which evil germs propagated and thrived” (219). The lack of information surrounding health issues could’ve been improved and the information would’ve also educated and informed the audience more about the aftermath the storm had caused besides damages.

Steinbeck only wrote about the Dust Bowl in the first chapter and the description of problems people faced in the affected areas was limited to economic issues and property damage. It would’ve helped him if he at least focused more about the Dust Bowl than the migration that the main characters chose to do. John Steinbeck described the scenes that the residents in the impacted areas had witnessed during the storm. He described the scene as, “The wind grew stronger, whisked under stones, carried up straws and old leaves, and even little clods, marking its course as it sailed across the fields” (Steinbeck 2). The dust storm was known to be very the most powerful and dangerous in the United States.

According to an article “From Dust Bowl to Dust Bowl: Soils are Still Very Much a Frontier of Science” by Philippe C. Baveye believed that “Dust bowls and large-scale soil degradation occur over vast regions in a number of countries” (2037). This is not the first time that a similar event like the Dust Bowl has happened around the world. Some dust storm has happened in rural countries, but they weren’t as major as the Dust Storm. The Dust Storm occurred in a really bad time during the 1930s. Steinbeck wrote, “Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust” (3). It is certain that the area where the men’s crops were located had more wind events than rain events, which have caused damage to the plants to dry. According to Jess C. Porter in his article “What was the Dust Bowl? Assessing contemporary popular knowledge” he believes that “While drought has been utilized as the primary temporal key, it is important to remember that the Dust Bowl drought varied by location” (395).

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As this book took place in the state of Oklahoma, it was known to be the “epicenter” of the storm, it caused farmers to migrate to different states. Jesse C. Porter also believed that “Therefore, depending upon the writer’s perspective and emphasis, there can be numerous “right” answers to the question of defining an appropriate temporal frame to the Dust Bowl” (395). John Steinbeck chose Oklahoma as the setting for the beginning of the book so that readers would understand what occurred during the time, as well as the foreshadowing for the future of Tom Joad and his family. There were economic problems during the Dust Bowl that occurred during the same as the Great Depression. In Chapter 1, John Steinbeck claimed that “The men sat still -thinking-figuring” (4). This quote symbolizes the struggles farmers faced during that time. They were the most affected ones as they didn’t know how they would maintain themselves and their family as they relied on farming as a source of work. According to the article “Broken Land: The Dust Bowl as Moral Failing” by Kate Sampsell, she wrote “Farmers, through outdated farming techniques and driven by lust for wealth, had wasted the land they had depended on” (768). Tom Joad said, “Ever’ year I can remember, we had a good crop comin’ an’ it never come” (Steinbeck 27). Since the Joad family used to own a farm, their reaction whenever they got a “good crop” is an example of the struggles of working on a farm. It is always unpredictable due to the region they live in, as well as the water supply.

According to the article “What we learned from the Dust Bowl: lessons in science, policy, and adaptation” written by Robert A. McLeman, he claims that “During the worst years of the Great Depression, large areas of the North American Great Plains experienced severe, multi-year droughts that led to soil erosion, dust storms, farm abandonment, personal hardships and distress migration on scales not previously seen” (418). These are problems people faced, not to mention, foreclosure of their land from banks. The banks abused their power during that time. The narrator stated, “If a bank or finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank-or the Company- needs-wants-insists-must have- as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them” (Steinbeck 31- 32). The victims felt that the banks were terrorizing them because of their situation of not having money. The Joad family were also victims of the bank. Muley claimed that “Well, they was gonna stick her out when the bank come to tractorin’ off the place. Your grampa stood out here with a rifle, an’ he … an’ bumped the hell outa the house” (Steinbeck 46).

Like any home or landowner, they tried their best to prevent their land from being evicted. Muley also claimed that “Well the folks that owns the lan’ says, ‘We can’t afford to keep no tenants.’ An’ they says, ‘The share… God I ain’t goin’” (Steinbeck 47). Not only were the tenants affected economically, but the landowners were also forced to lose their property. The residents from the affected states which were badly affected chose to migrate to a different state. Most farmers and residents had chosen to migrate to different states. California had become a “magnet” state for migrants to live and work. To Californians, Oklahomans were known as “Okies,” in which to some, the word became a “slur” due to the negative stereotypes people assumed about them. John Steinbeck used Tom Joad and his family as well as Muley Graves’s family as an example for migrants who were also headed to California. Muley Graves told Tom Joad that “My wife an’ the kids an’ her brother all took an’ went to California. They wasn’t nothin’ to eat. They wasn’t as mad as me, so they went. They wasn’t nothin’ to eat here” (Steinbeck 48). According to the research “Migration in the 1930s: Beyond the Dust” by Myron P. Gutmann, he believes that “People left areas where the weather was challenging for agriculture in the mid-1930s, but that experience was not limited to the Dust Bowl region” (711).

Since most residents were farmers, their chances of living in their land were very difficult to live because their resources were limited. Muley Graves also told Tom Joad about his family that, “Well, they been choppin’ cotton, all of ’em, even the kids an’ your grampa. Gettin’ money together so they can shove on west. Gonna by a car and shove on west where it’s easy livin’. There ain’nothin’ here. Fifty cents a clean acre for choppin’ cotton, an’ folks beggin’ for the chance to chop” (Steinbeck 46). John Steinbeck gave details about the plan Tom Joad’s family had in mind, which was making money by picking “good” cotton that weren’t damaged and later save and use the money for their trip. According to the article “The Dust Bowl myth” written by Charles J. Shindo claims “Even by broad definition, the so-called Dust Bowl migrants were only about a third of the more than one million migrants from and around the nation who journeyed to California during the 1930s” (26) as well as “in the popular imagination of the period, however, the dust storms came to symbolize all the overwhelming forces that were uprooting farmers and others and propelling them westward, against their will, in search of work” (26).

The author had implied that California residents didn’t want “Okies” to migrate, but he focused on writing positively about an ordinary family who wanted a better life that didn’t have much luck. The events during and after the Dust Bowl had so much impact on many people in the affected areas. As most tried to escape their “nightmare,” the moved on and settled to a better place like California without worrying about another major storm or drought that will affect them financially.

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