The Land Turtle

In chapter three of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck describes dry vacant land along the highway, grasses and weeds, ants, grasshoppers and sow bugs, “…like little armadillos.” But the land turtle has the starring role in this chapter.

I’m haunted by the turtle, by Steinbeck’s writing. In bed, before I go to sleep, the chapter comes back to me. When I’m making beds or vacuuming, I think of Steinbeck’s words. On my daily Wild City rambles with Teddy, I think of the little turtle.

Steinbeck’s writing is gorgeous, rich, lush, full of metaphor, and brutal. Rereading the chapter this morning made my heart beat faster, just like the first reading.

We don’t know where the turtle is going, or why, but he is single-minded, intent on heading one direction. Carrying his heavy, awkward shell, he struggles up a steep embankment, slips back, but continues relentlessly in exactly the same direction. He tackles a four-inch concrete curb – a formidable obstacle for a creature with short legs and the heavy burden of a shell. He never thinks of taking an easier route.

The poor thing suffers from an encounter with red ants. Still, he forges ahead. He becomes entangled in weeds, frees himself, and continues to the highway – a smooth concrete highway that could make his travels easier. A car passes and swerves to miss him. A truck follows and attempts to run over him. He hasn’t been killed, but he is flipped on to his back and must struggle to right himself. As this chapter ends, the turtle is continuing his slow and perilous journey.

In chapter four, Tom Joad picks the turtle up, wraps it in his coat, and plans to give it to his young siblings as a pet. But Tom, who is just out of prison, finds the family gone and the home abandoned. He puts the turtle down far from where the creature was picked up. Undaunted, the turtle begins his journey anew, turning toward the southwest direction he’d been headed all along.

The harrowing journey of the little turtle foreshadows the dangers of the journey the Joad family is about to take as they leave a hopeless life in Oklahoma toward dreams of a better life in California. It’s a journey that could be a metaphor for my life…and maybe yours.

But Chapter three is something else too.

Chapter three is a beautiful thing by itself. It’s a perfect symphony, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, the Moonlight Sonata, or any painfully beautiful piece of music.

You don’t need to know the words to have the music bruise your heart.

Steinbeck’s words tell a story, but they are also one note following another, each note exactly where it should be in the composition. If you didn’t know English, I could read chapter three aloud and you would hear the melody, one note following another. You would instinctively respond to the major and the minor chords.

Through the music of Steinbeck’s language you would understand the courage of the small creature and the near-impossibility of his journey.

In the end, you might be just a little bit broken-hearted.

Just the same, you would say, “Thank you for the music.”

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