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Celebrating the 'Unwrath' in 'The Grapes of Wrath' on its 75th Anniversary

05/06/2014 01:21 pm ET | Updated Jul 06, 2014

No mystique to feminine humanity, Ma Joad, a mother superior:

Every woman, or at least almost every woman, has, at one time or another of her life, charge of the personal health of somebody, whether a child or an invalid - in other words, every woman is a nurse.

That's not the podium pronouncement of a 1960s feminist. It's the observation (along with many practical health care guides and recommendations) that Florence Nightingale promoted -- based, in large part, on two very different scenes of experience: In 1853, she became superintendent of the London charity-supported Institution for Sick Gentlewomen in Distressed Circumstances. From 1854 to 1856, as "the Lady with the Lamp," she tended to the sick and wounded in military hospitals during the Crimean War.

As an impatient patient-advocate, Florence Nightingale saw the need for women to have "everyday sanitary knowledge." She saw the need to provide "hints" as to how women could teach themselves to "put the constitution in such a state as that it will have no disease, or that it can recover from disease." Her Notes on Nursing: What it is, and what it is not was first published in 1859, when there were no formal schools of nursing -- and, in some sense, no formally-trained nurses.

In The Grapes of Wrath -- first published in 1939 -- there are four women whose temperaments and coming-to-terms dispositions would qualify them as Nightingale disciples.

Deliverance: Sairy Wilson's helpfulness regarding Grampa Joad's decline and "departure"
A "wizened, small and shuddering woman" whose face and hands are "wrinkled as a dried leaf," Sairy Wilson "holds herself upright by a tent flap." She is not well: "jus' pain covered with skin." And yet, she greets the Joads most cordially: "her voice had a beautiful low timbre, soft and modulated, and yet with ringing overtones."

The Wilsons have just met the Joads, when Grampa Joad sits limply, staring blankly ahead of him, and weakly sputters, "I'm sicker'n hell."

The Wilson's car has "broke down" and the Wilsons despair of their chances of completing their long trek from Arkansas hard-scrapple to the promised land of lush California. But that hardship does not sputter Sairy's welcome and hospice-like hospitality. Slowly and carefully, she walks toward Grampa and asks: "How'd you like ta come in our tent? You kin lay down on our mattress an' rest."

Grampa looks up at Sairy, "drawn by her soft voice." She continues with the offer: "Come on now. You'll git some rest. We'll he'p you over."

While the road-weary Joads unload and begin to make camp, Sairy kneels by the mattress and tries to comfort Grampa who breaths heavily; his "lips practiced a speech but did not speak it... A struggle began in the old man's body, his legs moved restlessly and his hands stirred. He said a whole string of blurred sounds that were not words, and his face was red under the spiky white whiskers."

Sairy studies the "twitching red face." She has seen the signs three times before. Reluctantly, she makes an accurate diagnosis: "He's workin' up a stroke."

Grampa's muscles twitch. "Suddenly as though jarred under a heavy blow," he lays still, breathing stopped; his face turning blackish purple. Sairy instructs preacher Casy to pry apart Grampa's tight jaws and reach in so that the old man doesn't gag on his tongue. The tongue lifted clear, "a rattling breath came out and a sobbing breath was indrawn... the uneven breath rattled in and out."

Spared a convulsive death, Grampa's rasping breath becomes louder until he emits "a long gasping sigh" -- "then a crying release of air." Mattress-side, Sairy sits by Gramma.

To spare the family the delay and expense of a formal undertaker's burial (or the indignity of pauper's grave), Grampa is laid to rest by his kin, surreptitiously, by the side of the road -- in the quilt Sairy had volunteered for the sick bed.


Deliverying: Mrs. Wainwright as practical nurse and midwife

Seemingly hard-edged, Mrs. Wainwright proves to be a sharer and a hands-on helper: volunteering sugar for the Joads' flat flapjacks, then "pain killer an' salts" for Rose of Sharon who is shivering with fever as she is going into labor. To warm Rose of Sharon, in the boxcar birthing room, Mrs. Wainwright gets a "far goin'" with the last of the twigs, and rigs a barricade to "keep out the draf." To soothe the young girl and to drown out the torrentials that threaten to drown those who have taken sanctuary in a boxcar, she speaks comfortingly. For the delivery, Mrs. Wainwright "grew quiet and stern with efficiency."


Deliverer: Rose of Sharon -- a "nurser" -- saves a life after losing a life

In a rain-soaked barn, where the Joads seek refuge from the flooded boxcar, they come upon a whiskery gaunt-faced man - "his open eyes were vague and staring." He took sick picking cotton to scrounge a bit of food for his young son, who sobs in "a croaking monotone": "He ain't et for six days.... Said he weren't hungry, or jus' et. Give me the food. Now he's too weak. Can't hardly move. He's starvin'. He's dyin'.... starvin' to death."

Without giving away too much -- Rose of Sharon, with mother's milk, becomes a nourisher: she literally delivers the milk of human kindness.

A Mother Superior: Ma Joad
Florence Nightingale would have to admire Ma Joad. Judged by her Notes on Nursing, FN was pretty severe, dogmatic, critical, even bitchy. Still, FN would be taken by Ma Joad's priorities and steadfastness; her unfussiness and her family-focused diligence; her "high calm and superhuman understanding" -- her unpretentious helpfulness and healing ways.

Ma continually resists weariness as she does whatever she can to promote cleanliness and hygiene. Where there is water, the young uns are sent off to "scrounge aroun' good in their ears." In a work-camp shack whose floor is splashed with grease, whose air is rife with sweat and grease, and whose only piece of furniture is a rusty tin stove, Ma declares, "It ain't so bad once we wash it out. Get her mopped."

She is the family's caregiver and nutritionist. She is the counselor and consoler. As to both body and spirit, Ma is a nourisher and support system extraordinaire.

To make sure that they can "get acrost" the Mojave Desert at night, Ma Joad lays beside Gramma all through the parched and jolting journey, comforting and then "caring" for the dead woman so that border patrols don't halt the family's trek into the land that is supposed to hold such promised sustenance. On discovering that Gramma had died before the crossing, the family is "terrified" by Ma's strength and resolve, her love and commitment. Grudgingly, perhaps, FN would have to be impressed.

Ma Joad's caregiving all along the arduous, discouraging, and increasingly dispiriting trek west expands to the circle of famished camp children who circle her trash fire, as she works up a meager supper in the Joad stew kettle. "Heavy and slow with weariness," Ma leaves some scrapings for the starving children who "look self-consciously at their feet" while stealing furtive glances at where the food aroma is being brewed.

Ma provides for strangers whose plight is no longer strange, but felt. Despite all the deprivations and despair, her humanity is intact -- her hopefulness addresses every hurt and pain, tends to every wound. She is a sustainer. She administers treatment in word and deed.

Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding... since [the family] could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. But better than joy was the calm. Imperturbability could be depended upon... From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet...

While Florence Nightingale doesn't deliver joy, let alone build up laughter out of inadequate material, she would surely have been pleased to have Ma Joad tending to the poor in her charity hospital or treating the wounded in a Crimean War hospital tent.