The book I’m reading at the moment features a family driven from their home by forces beyond their control, who have to traverse hundreds of miles across difficult terrain in search of sanctuary, to find themselves housed in camps with hundreds of thousands of other people, all of whom have made the same journey. They are without money, food or medicines. Disease is rife, starvation is common and all they want is a home, a job and an income. The local people where the camps are situated dislike the family, falsely accuse them of all sorts of wrongs and do their level best to send them back where they came from.
Sound familiar? You’d be forgiven for thinking I’m reading the latest journalistic expose of this summer’s migrant crisis. No, I’m reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath published in 1939 after the Midwestern Dust Bowl crisis forced many Oklahoman farmers from their lands and towards California in search of work and somewhere to live. Admittedly, the Joad family are primarily economic migrants rather than refugees, and only travel across their own country, but at the time it must have seemed like they were travelling halfway across the world. Even when they reached California, they were not welcomed with open arms; many people starved to death or died of smallpox or cholera due to the insanitary conditions they were forced to live in.
Yet the parallels between an eighty year old story and the events of last summer are so similar to have taken my breath away. Part of me feels that there is something wrong in writing this post, as if I am making light of very serious situations. Far from it. I just feel that lessons which should have been learned – moral lessons, if not humanitarian ones – all those years ago have not been, and that this crisis may have been dealt with differently.
I do not have any solutions. Neither did Steinbeck. But what he did was to open people’s eyes at mankind’s stunning inhumanity to mankind by holding up a mirror to the “them and us” mentality. What can I say? Read Grapes of Wrath and start a dialogue without jumping to conclusions or resorting to stereotype. Just try it and see what happens. It might prove interesting.