The Grapes of Wrath
(1939)

Chapter 1

John Steinbeck

        To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.  The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks.  The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.  In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated.  The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet.  The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more.  The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more.  The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

        In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams.  Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches.  And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward.  Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely.  The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs.  The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots.  The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.

        In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed.  Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air:  a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it.  The dust was long in settling back again.

        When June was half gone, the big clouds moved up out of Texas and the Gulf, high heavy clouds, rain-heads.  The men in the fields looked up at the clouds and sniffed at them and held wet fingers up to sense the wind.  And the horses were nervous while the clouds were up.  The rain-heads dropped a little spattering and hurried on to some other country.  Behind them the sky was pale again and the sun flared.  In the dust there were drop craters where the rain had fallen, and there were clean splashes on the corn, and that was all.

        A gentle wind followed the rain clouds, driving them on northward, a wind that softly clashed the drying corn.  A day went by and the wind increased, steady, unbroken by gusts.  The dust from the roads fluffed up and spread out and fell on the weeds beside the fields, and fell into the fields a little way.  Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields.  Little by little he sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away.  The wind grew stronger.  The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke.  The corn threshed the wind and made a dry, rushing sound.  The finest dust did not settle back to earth now, but disappeared into the darkening sky.

        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.  The air and the sky darkened and through them the sun shone redly, and there was a raw sting in the air.  During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.

        The dawn came, but no day.  In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.

        Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes.

        When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards.  Now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, and emulsion of dust and air.  Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around 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.  The people brushed it from their shoulders.  Little lines of dust lay at the door sills.

        In the middle of that night the wind passed on and left the land quiet.  The dust-filled air muffled sound more completely than fog does.  The people, lying in their beds, heard the wind stop.  They awakened when the rushing wind was gone.  They lay quietly and listened deep into the stillness.  Then the roosters crowed, and their voices were muffled, and the people stirred restlessly in their beds and wanted the morning.  They knew it would take a long time for the dust to settle out of the air.  In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood.  All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down.  An even blanket covered the earth.  It settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.

        The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it.  And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain.  Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust.  The men were silent and they did not move often.  And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men - to feel whether this time the men would break.  The women studied the men's faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained.  The children stood near by drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break.  The children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes.  Horses came to the watering troughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust.  After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant.  Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break.  Then they asked, Whta'll we do?  And the men replied, I don't know.  but it was all right.  The women knew it was all right, and the watching children knew it was all right.  Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole.  The women went into the houses to their work, and the children began to play, but cautiously at first.  As the day went forward the sun became less red.  It flared down on the dust-blanketed land.  The men sat in the doorways of their houses; their hands were busy with sticks and little rocks.  The men sat still - thinking - figuring.