[T]hat police. He done somepin to me, made me feel mean . . . ashamed. An’ now I ain’t ashamed . . . Why, I feel like people again.See Important Quotations Explained
Later that night, the Joads come across the Weedpatch camp, a decent, government-sponsored facility where migrants govern themselves, thus avoiding the abuse of corrupt police officers. Appointed committees ensure that the grounds remain clean and equipped with working toilets and showers. Early in the morning after their arrival, Tom wakes and meets Timothy and Wilkie Wallace, who invite him to breakfast. They agree to take him to the ranch they have been working on to see if they can get him a job. At the ranch, the boss, Mr. Thomas, tells the men about the Farmers’ Association, which demands that he pay his laborers twenty-five cents an hour and no more. Even though he knows his men deserve a higher wage, Thomas claims that to pay more would “only cause unrest.” He goes on to say that the government camp makes the association extremely uncomfortable: the members believe the place to be riddled with communists, or “red agitators.” In hopes of shutting the facilities down, Mr. Thomas says, the association is planning to send instigators into the camp on Saturday night to start a riot. The police will then have the right to enter the camp, arrest the labor organizers, and evict the migrants.
Back at the camp, the rest of the Joad men go to find work, and Ma is visited by Jim Rawley, the camp manager, whose kindness makes her feel human again. A religious fanatic named Mrs. Sandry appears and tells Rose of Sharon to beware of the dancing and sinning that goes on in the camp: the babies of sinners, she warns, are born “dead and bloody.” The camp’s Ladies Committee then drops in on Ma and Rose of Sharon, introducing the women to the rules of the camp. Pa, Al, and Uncle John return from a day of fruitless searching for work, but Ma remains hopeful, for Tom has been hired.
When the people are not working or looking for work, they make music and tell folktales together. If they have money, they can buy alcohol, which, like music, temporarily distracts them from their miseries. Preachers give fire-and-brimstone sermons about evil and sin, haranguing the people until they grovel on the ground, and conduct mass baptisms. These are the various methods the migrants have for finding escape and salvation.
It is the night of the camp dance—the night that the Farmers’ Association plans to start a riot and have the camp shut down. Ezra Huston, the chairman of the camp committee, hires twenty men to look out for instigators and preempt the riot. Although Rose of Sharon goes to the event, she decides not to dance for fear of the effect it might have on her baby. As the music begins, Tom and the other men quickly spot three dubious-looking men. They watch the men carefully. When one of the suspected troublemakers picks a fight by stepping in to dance with another man’s date, the men apprehend the trio and evict them from the camp. Before they leave, Huston asks the three why they would turn against their own brethren, and the men confess that they have been well paid to start a riot. Later that night, a man tells a story about a group of mountain people who were hired as cheap labor by a rubber company in Akron. When the mountain people joined a union, the townspeople united to run them out of town. In response, five thousand mountain men marched through the center of town with their rifles, allegedly to shoot turkeys on the far side of the settlement. The march served as a powerful demonstration. The storyteller concludes that there has been no trouble between the townspeople and the workers since then.
Life in the Weedpatch government camp proves to turn the Joads’ luck around. Perhaps for the first time since leaving Oklahoma, the family finds itself in a secure position. Tom finds a job, and the camp manager treats Ma with such dignity that she says she feels “like people again.” The charity, kindness, and goodwill that the migrants exhibit toward one another testifies to the power of their fellowship. When left to their own devices, and given shelter from the corrupt social system that keeps them down, the migrants make the first steps toward establishing an almost utopian mini-society. Moreover, life in Weedpatch disproves the landowners’ beliefs that “Okies” lead undignified, uncivilized lives. Indeed, the migrants show themselves to be more civilized than the landowners, as demonstrated by the way in which they respond to the Farmers’ Association’s plot to sabotage the camp. Most of the wealthy landowners believe that poverty-stricken, uneducated farmers deserve to be treated contemptuously. These men maintain that to reward farmers with amenities such as toilets, showers, and comfortable wages will merely give them a sense of entitlement, embolden them to ask for more, and thus create social and economic unrest. The migrants, however, meet the association’s scheming and violent plot with grace and integrity. Here, the farmers rise far above the men who oppress them by exhibiting a kind of dignity that, in the world Steinbeck describes, often eludes the rich.
The Joads’ experiences in the Weedpatch camp serve to illustrate one of the novel’s main theses: humans find their greatest strength in numbers. When Ma tries to help Rose of Sharon to overcome her grief at Connie’s abandonment, she reminds the girl, “[Y]ou’re jest one person, an’ they’s a lot of other folks.” As the novel has suggested time and again, the needs of the group supersede the needs of the individual. As the novel moves into its final chapters, this philosophy takes center stage. The unity of the migrants poses the greatest threat to landowners and the socioeconomic system on which they thrive. This idea begins to dawn on the farmers, who realize the effects that their numbers, once organized, might have. The story about the rubber workers and their mass march indicates the desperation of people in these times to obtain not only economic solvency but the respect they deserve as human beings.