So today I’m thinking about that turtle in the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath. It’s chapter three and he’s just an old turtle plodding along in the dust beside the fields of dying corn. We heard about the dust and the corn in the opening chapter, how the wind and the heat are blowing the life out of the crops, and how the sharecroppers are close to breaking but still hold on to enough stubborn grit that their women know somehow, no matter what happens, they’ll survive. As long as the men don’t break, Steinbeck says, and when he shows us this turtle a few pages later, we know he’s showing us how a humble, homely creature can be tough enough to endure a serious battering and keep going. Even after a car hits him, “flipping him like a tiddly wink,” like a pawn in some cosmic game, into the fringes of the crisping corn, he gets himself turned back onto his feet and resumes his steady plodding.
Some wild oat seeds get stuck in his shell and eventually they fall underneath him and his body drags dust over them as he goes along. Sooner or later, some rain will fall—it has to, sometime. And those seeds will sprout, and it will be the turtle who gave them a chance at life. Here, too, we’re seeing a glimpse of these men we’re about to meet, men whose accidental actions will cause chains of events, men whose steady plodding will bring life out of the dust—sooner or later.
And then along comes Tom Joad and he sees that turtle and scoops him up. Rolls him up in his jacket to take home as a present for a little brother he hasn’t seen in we don’t know how many years. Fresh out of prison, not even sure his family is still holding on to the forty acres they’ve sharecropped time out of mind.
I love how Steinbeck does this: how Joad is that turtle though he doesn’t know it; how forces so big he can’t see them will catch him up and carry him along, and at times he’ll feel as blind and helpless as that turtle he’s got wrapped up in his coat.
Only three and a half chapters, and Steinbeck’s got me trembling.