Next year marks the 75th anniversary of John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath. It chronicles the Joad family's trek from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression in their desperate attempt to find work...and survive. The Grapes of Wrath became one of America's most iconic novels, in part, because it spoke to the human conditions of challenge and hardship. In commemoration of the anniversary, a group of artists is retracing the journey of the Joad Family across America, including a stop in Flagstaff along historic Route 66. As Arizona Public Radio's Justin Regan reports, they're using theater and film to connect the historical and modern hardships of every day Americans.
Henry Poore is one of about a dozen people at today's Steinbeck workshop at the Coconino Center for the Arts. Poore moved to Flagstaff 52 years ago from Tennessee, where he grew up in a poor family, made even poorer by the Great Depression. "There was no money in circulation," Poore says. "There was absolutely no work to be found.
Poore says the happiest day of his father's life was when he got a job working 60 hours a week for $8.00. That type of struggle and triumph, Poore believes, defines the human condition. And, it's why Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath has endured as a literary classic. "I think that his writing, ir people really read it and understand it," Poore says, "it shows that he's pointing at the Joads, for example. We're looking for that bright side of life."
Poore is one of dozens of people across the country being interviewed by playwrite, Octavio Solis, for the National Steinbeck Center's "Grapes of Wrath Journey". "This novel made a significant impact on American culture the minute it was published," Solis says. "75 years later, we decided to go on this journey that the Joad Family took to see how things have changed, to get the stories from the people and to find out what got them through those hard times."
Solis and 2 other artists are collecting oral histories, conducting dramatic workshops and blogging their way from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma, to Steinbeck's native California. "Flagstaff was one of the cities that Route 66 cut through," Solis says. "Route 66 was the main artery that a lot of the migrant population took to get to California. That's how they came."
Colleen Bailey is the executive director of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. Today, she's at the Pioneer Museum in Flagstaff, overseeing the oral history project. "This year we were looking at creating a national dialogue around the issues that we think are really alive and well in today's world," Bailey says. "And we wanted to take a pulse of the nation today. So, we thought what better way to do that than what Steinbeck did which was to go out into the world and to listen to people."
Bailey says the project partners with local organizations, artists and musicians in each of the towns where they stop. For playwright Octavio Solis, the "Hooverville" shanty towns of the Great Depression may be gone, but endurance and hope persist in America. And, he says that keeps Steinbeck's vision relevant. "I've learned that Americans are very hardy people," Solis says. "Very strong, very tough. I feel like every person who is homeless that I see in the streets of Flagstaff or San Francisco or Amarillo, that each of those - each person is a Hooverville. Each person carries a little bit of Hooverville and Tom Joad with them."
Interviews and other materials collected during the "Grapes of Wrath Journey" will be featured this spring in Salinas at a 75th anniversary celebration for the novel.