A modern-day Grapes of Wrath

Family in Oklahoma in 1935 Many farming families were forced to migrate after a series of severe droughts

Seventy-five years after John Steinbeck wrote his searing portrait of the Joad family's journey west, what is life like now in Sallisaw, Oklahoma?

The horses splash around in a circle, linked to a central post, churning up the muddy water.

They're training, at what used to be a racecourse, the very lifeblood of this area.

It's closed now and with it, many jobs have gone. Decades separate this scene from the parched, cracked, tortured earth that Steinbeck evoked so graphically in the Grapes of Wrath 75 years ago.

But they are connected, perhaps, by the woes of the American working man and woman, a country uncertain of its future.

His tale is of a land, reduced to dust by nature and greed, the journey of those thus exiled to the promised land of California, where their hopes turn to ash.

After five years based in the US, I am going back to the UK soon - my final report will be on my thoughts about the US, hung around the Joad family's journey. The result will be on Radio Four's Broadcasting this Sunday.

When Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, controversy swirled around it as thick as any dust storm - branded as Red propaganda, and burned in some places - but it was also hugely successful.

I'm unsure whether that's because the strength of the characters and the iconic story of exodus, against an American setting, overcome the sometimes preachy agit prop. Or whether the very moralistic tale of the struggle of the struggle of the poor and downtrodden spoke to the times.

At any rate, the novel is none too popular in this town. I talk to one man who says it made the insult "Okies" stick - and he recalls how it was used against him in California.

I talk to the owner of the one bank in the area that survived the great depression - and get his reaction to Steinbeck's characterisation of the banks as faceless monsters.

More reflections soon.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

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  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Thank you Mark. I have enjoyed your insight on America very much.
    Good luck back in merry old England.
    And may God have mercy on us all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    It'll be good to have you back Mark. We miss you here. :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    May be the next corespondent will actually be interested in the US.Justin Webb,who would would have regular 1,000 post's on aspects of American life & views with one topic after another.My dislike of institutions is Bourne out here,in that they eventually morph into being of use only unto them selves & the work fills the time available.Not with a bang but a whimper.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Since the low of 6,547 (Bush Jr's sub prime scam) in early 2009, the Dow has streaked to almost 17,000 this month while middle class income levels have been essentially stagnant for over a decade (since Clinton)! The GOP/tea party and Jr's Supreme Court have called the shots since 2009. US a Plutocracy?


  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Mr. Mardell, your predecessor left and was a self proclaimed expert on the US. His interview on C-Span showed his knowledge was not nearly so great as he thought it was. There is much about the US he saw out of cultural and historic context he couldn't possibly understand. Are you going to be the same way when you leave?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    8. Daniel M Perrine

    Yes, this is precisely how English works: when determining verb plurality it doesn't matter if the subject is formally plural or not, only that there's more than one of it. It's one of the more peculiar aspects of the language.

    "Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage."

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Sad to hear Mark Mardell is leaving us but glad to know he will get to go back to UK his homeland

    Although didn't always agree with all his stances, there were some very well written articles that made you really think about things and always interesting

    As America has dramatically changed the last 5 years, (Obama)
    so have Mardell's articles with it

    We will miss you Mark
    Good Luck ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    How little things have changed in the US in 75 years, the rich get richer and the poor stay poor and are fed on a diet of bread and circuses and pie in the sky when you die.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Chris London @9

    Welcome use of some journalistic freedom, to capture a mood, to remind of origins, to look forward with some hope of better, not to confine either comment or feedback to neat tightly-moderated 'topics'. Vain in truth our calling for the ends of democracy, for ongoing rule of, for, by the (equal) people, without call for equal partnership: with ChrisA@11, in free-fall.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.


    Thanks for your reporting and for the hosting of public comment.
    On the civil war (exaggerated hopes of 'more sense'), it should now be clear to all that in an atomised society (our inalienable equality alienated), groups will form for purposes of defence and / or oppression, and take on a mob-life of their own, their deaths in scandal only to see the rise of others, until the day...

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Thank you for your articles & insights.Hope you have a safe journey back to the UK.
    God bless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    The images Steinbeck created when telling the story have been repeated in many parts of the world since. The same old battles between those that have and those that have not are fought in different locations endlessly. The hope that he wrote about is still despair for millions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    The photo truly evocative of an Exodus like no other in US history, and Steinbeck captured the-depression like no other.

    Have rarely agreed with your-take on GOP America - have lived in North America since leaving the UK in the 60's - Harold Wilson's wage and price controls prompted my exodus.

    Dow at close to 17,000, a black man in the White House and a nation in free-fall to extinction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The poet of profundity departs our shores, non the wiser.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    This is becoming a phenomenon, what ever happened about discussing topics of the day. It is becoming more apparent that we are getting less and less opportunities to discuss on the BBC. Politics - Nick no longer partakes, Fewer and fewer opportunities on Europe, Northern Ireland and non at all on Scotland. No longer for the people by the people, shame on you BBC....

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    1) "I'm unsure whether that's because the strength of the characters and the iconic story of exodus, against an American setting, overcome the sometimes preachy agit prop.".....? It is usual in English to have a plural subject paired with a plural verb. "Overcome" is singular.
    2) "Or whether the very moralistic tale of the struggle of the struggle..." ?Or the tale of the tale of the tale?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.


    You've provided some of the most engaging commentary to come across this American's screen -- some columns with brilliance right out of the park, some with so many hooks I'd swear you come from a family of teachers, and some like an inkblot that posters define themselves against. I'm sure the UK will be lucky be to have you return, but I'm glad for the time you had with us here.


  • Comment number 6.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Having worked and lived in the same places that most of the "Okies
    came from (Texas and Oklahoma), I can tell you that the tables have turned. Scores of people from California and the rust belt states are now moving to Texas and Oklahoma. The explanation from the people of the rust belt states is that there are no jobs and the people from California say no future there unless you are rich.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Thank you for this article.

    The book is still a towering work, about an America in the midst of great suffering, yet on the cusp of unseen greatness.

    On your way west, stop and visit the Hoover Dam, and the Golden Gate Bridge, also built in those years. See the Coit Tower murals. Think about FDR leading America out of that drought.

    Thank you for your five years in this post.



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