Seventy years after John Steinbeck published his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” his words sift in the consciousness of Oklahomans everywhere like the billowing dust clouds that framed his epic.
In one sweeping work Steinbeck caused a national sensation in 1939 and in the process defined an Oklahoman.
He did so mostly with one word: “Okie.”
Is the nickname a derogatory term? Authors, political cartoonists, politicians, songwriters, poets and native Oklahomans from all walks of life have weighed in on the issue over the years, perhaps saying more about themselves than Steinbeck’s fictional portrayal of Oklahoma’s Depression Era-migrant workers.
Yet the debate — like the basis for Steinbeck’s novel — is real.
“Okie was a curse word,” said Tom Hoskison, whose family journeyed from Purcell to California’s San Joaquin Valley in 1946. Hoskison’s father baled hay at night to feed his family, and his son endured the stigma of being an “Okie” thanks to insensitive students and teachers at a public school.
“You really learned to scrap in school and stick up for yourself,” said Hoskison, 71 and now Bethany’s economic development director. “Okies are no longer viewed as Okies were and we’re respected for being a place where entrepreneurs come from who are also friendly and trustworthy people. There is a 180-degree difference today. Oklahoma is thought of as a respected place to be from.”
Author finds strength in the "Okie" name
Author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up poor in Canadian County in the 1940s as if innately “ashamed of the Oklahomans who migrated to California during the Dust Bowl.” Dunbar admits she didn’t even really know why that feeling existed; just that it was real.
She met Oklahoma native Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel decades later while writing her childhood memoirs. McDaniel, born in Stroud in 1918, chronicled the experiences of the uprooted Oklahomans who migrated westward in the 1930s through her poetry.
McDaniel did so as an eyewitness, having lived in the Arvin Federal Government Camp made famous in Steinbeck’s novel as “Weedpatch Camp.” At the time of her death in 2007, McDaniel was celebrated as the “Okie Poet Laureate” in California’s Central Valley where she spun poems about gravy, grape-picking and the Great Depression.
“At the time I started writing my book I didn’t see the migration west as part of my childhood story,” said Dunbar, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. “She made me realize it was part of my story.”
Together, the two visited the remnants of the Arvin camp in Weed Patch, Ca., and conducted a book tour in the Central Valley.