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Why does a novel from 1939 about a migrant family in search of work during the Great Depression still resonate with readers in the 21st century? The answer is simple: look around. After the recession of 2008, this story maintains its relevance, especially with many students whose parents lost their jobs and/or careers as a result of the 2008 crash. The universal themes of the pursuit of the American Dream, perseverance, and the struggle against injustice, are still found in many aspects of American life today. As a result, The Grapes of Wrath has been hailed as one of the defining novels of American literature.

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Essential Questions for The Grapes of Wrath

  1. What is the American Dream, and how has it changed over the last century?
  2. Why is it important to hold onto hope in the face of tragedy?
  3. When can family provide strength and comfort?
  4. How can a person stand up to social injustice?
  5. Why is it important for people to earn a fair living wage?
  6. What does this novel say about being an American, even in dark times?

Comparing The Great Depression and the 2008 Recession

The Great Depression

2008 Recession

Unemployment Rate 25% Unemployment Rate 10%
20% of people are underemployed
Governmental monetary stimulus took 19 months to reflect in the stock market Governmental monetary stimulus took 10 months to reflect in stock market
People waited in bread lines; depended on government to survive day-to-day One in six people ended up on governmental assistance
Banks collapsed, losing $140 billion in depositors’ money; over 9,000 banks failed Between GDP loss and loss of household wealth, estimates are around $12.8 trillion dollars lost; 57 banks failed

The Dust Bowl

Right in the middle of the Great Depression came one of the worst droughts America had ever seen. For several years (from about 1934-1940), 150,000 square miles of America’s heartland were ravaged by high winds, dry conditions, and poor cultivation practices that led to loose topsoil in which nothing could survive the harsh weather.

  • States affected:
    • Texas
    • Arkansas
    • Oklahoma
    • Kansas
    • Nebraska
    • New Mexico
    • Colorado
    • Wyoming
    • South Dakota

  • Between 1933-1940, 2.5-3.5 million people fled the Great Plains regions affected by the Dust Bowl.
  • It is estimated that 200,000-250,000 people migrated to California, with many settling into the San Joaquin Valley.

Enrichment Activity

While reading The Grapes of Wrath, have students compare and contrast the Joads’ story with that of the immigration crisis out of Syria into Europe.

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