In Dubious Battle

by John Steinbeck

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Jim Nolan’s father is a working man brought to his death by the blows of police clubs and pistol butts. As a youngster, Jim witnesses both his father’s courage and his despair. Jim sees his mother lose even her religious faith as poverty and starvation overwhelm the family. Older, but still keenly remembering his youth, with the scars of brutality and starvation deeply embedded in his heart, Jim becomes a member of the Communist Party. He is assigned to work with Mac, an able, experienced organizer. Together, they become fruit pickers, at a time when the fruit growers cut wages lower than the workers think possible. A strike is brewing, and Mac and Jim determine to hurry it along and to direct its course.

Luck is with them. Shortly after their arrival at the camp of the workers, Mac, giving the impression that he is a doctor, helps London’s thirteen-year-old daughter-in-law Lisa give birth. Word of Mac’s accomplishment spreads throughout the area. After Mac and Jim becomes friendly with London, leader of the camp, and the other workers, they persuade the fruit pickers to organize and to strike for higher wages and for better living conditions. This is not easy to do. As usual, the orchard owners make effective use of communism as a bogey. Furthermore, the vigilantes are a constant menace, not to mention deputies, troops, and strikebreakers, all hirelings of the fruit growers. In addition, the authorities can always close down the camp by maintaining that it violates the sanitation laws and is a menace to public health. There is also the problem of money and food; the poor migrant workers desperately need work to supply their daily necessities.

Despite these difficulties, a strike at last is called. On the night that the strikers are to sneak out to meet the strikebreakers called in by the owners, Mac and Jim are ambushed by vigilantes. They succeed in escaping, but Jim is shot in the arm. Word of their plan for the next morning had leaked out, and they suspect that a stool pigeon is in their midst. Nevertheless, the next day they march out to meet the strikebreakers at the railroad station and to implore them not to fight against their fellow workers. Although the police assemble in force, they seem afraid of the strikers. During the encounter, Joy, an old and crippled comrade, is shot and killed. The strikers carry the body back to the camp, and over the body of their comrade, Mac delivers a fiery and eloquent speech, exhorting the strikers to carry on and to fight to the finish. This action proves to be the best of all possible spurs to bring the workers together, and the strikers are aroused to carry on the struggle even more fiercely.

Luck is with them in other ways. They persuade the father of Al Townsend, who owns a lunch cart and gives handouts to Communist Party members, to allow them to camp on his farm, after they promise him that his crop will be picked and that his property will be protected. Doc Burton, a philosopher and skeptic, takes charge of the sanitation, thus protecting the camp against the health inspectors. Dick, a handsome comrade, uses his charms on women in order to get money and food for the strikers. Meanwhile, the owners try everything to break up the strike. They attempt to intimidate the workers, to divide them, to bribe London, but all their efforts fail. Then another problem arises. The owners have an article published in which it is stated that the county is feeding...

(This entire section contains 948 words.)

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the strikers. The report is not true, but those who sympathize with the strikers believe it and stop helping them altogether. Dick is getting far fewer results from his endeavors, and the situation becomes desperate.

Mac is often on the point of losing his head, of letting his anger get the better of him, so that the strategy of the strike is sometimes imperiled. By contrast, Jim grows more able, more hardened. He ignores the women of the camp who seek to lure him into their tents and does not allow his feelings for Lisa to become anything more than a casual, friendly relationship. Thus, he provides a sort of balance for his more emotional comrades. Conditions grow worse. The strikers have practically no money and no food. Dick finally manages to get a cow and some beans, but the food suffices for only a few days. Meanwhile, Doc Burton vanishes. Without his help, the sick and the wounded cannot be attended to, and the sanitation of the camp grows progressively worse. One night, someone manages to outwit the guards and set a barn afire. The barn and an adjacent kennel housing some favorite pointers are totally destroyed. The next day the owner calls in the sheriff to evict the strikers.

The strike seems lost. The spirits of the men are at a low ebb, and they give signs of yielding. On the following night, a boy comes and tells Jim and Mac that Doc Burton is lying wounded in a field. They rush out, only to realize, when they are fired upon, that they have fallen into a trap. Mac calls out a word of warning and falls to the ground. When he gets up, after the firing stops, he calls out to Jim. He gets no answer. Jim is dead. By that time, the shots have aroused the others, and they come forward. Over the body of his comrade and friend, Mac makes a strong and rousing speech, urging the workers to stick together, to fight on, and to win the strike.