The cropper men and women recall the devastation of their native Oklahoma lands, brought about by drought and economic depression.
Tom Joad is paroled from McAlester Prison after serving four years for killing a man in a fight. After hitching a ride, he runs into Jim Casy, an ex-preacher, and together they happen upon the nearly deserted Joad farm. The Dust Bowl has ravaged the Depression-era country, and the family is gone; only Muley Graves, a neighbor, remains. He has taken refuge there as his own home was taken by the bank and trampled by a tractor.
Tom learns his family is at Uncle John's - but not for long, as he too has been evicted. They are all surprised to see Tom out of jail, and he agrees to relocate with them to California where it is rumored that there is work, even if it means he must break his parole.
At the same time, Tom's 16-year-old brother Al is buying the truck that will make the 2,000 mile trek. Hucksters try to sell him a wreck, but the mechanically inclined teen feels he's made a good deal. The family isn't quite so sure. The next day, the family loads the truck with their few remaining possessions and heads down the plenty road with Casy along for the ride. Though all remain optimistic, traveling along Route 66, Tom and the others experience their first disparaging remarks, now labeled as “Okies.”
As the Joads set up camp for the night, they meet other travelers who have handbills promising work in California, identical to Pa's. One ragged man has already been to California and reports that there is no work left. In order to keep wages low, ranch owners print thousands of handbills when they only have a few hundred jobs available. His entire family perished from famine.
Elsewhere, dangling their feet off a highway overpass, Connie and Rosasharn watch the passing traffic. Connie admires the Lincoln Zephyr, while Rosasharn dreams of a home for their baby.
The next day the Joads soberly bury Grampa, who has died during the night. The family then continues their journey down the road.
- INTERMISSION -
At a diner, a waitress chats with truckers. Pa enters with Ruthie and Winfield in tow, and she looks at them with contempt. They try to buy a loaf of bread for Granma (who is now sick) as they prepare to cross the Mojave Desert, but they only have a dime. At the urging of her husband, the waitress gives them the loaf at a discount. Suddenly moved, she throws in two lollipops for the kids.
As they cross the dry Mojave, the men drive the truck while Connie makes amorous overtures to a reluctant Rosasharn. Ma rests with Granma. The old woman has died, but only Ma knows it. The next morning, after passing through an inspection station and reaching the beautiful Tehachapi Valley, the awful truth is revealed. Ma had promised Granma she'd be buried in a green place.
The Joads continue on, settling in Hooverville, a squalid shanty town by the railroad tracks. The family is disgusted by their new surroundings but have little choice at the moment. Al angrily reproaches his slow-witted brother Noah for being more of a burden than a help. He wants to break off on his own, but Ma takes charge, insisting the family stay together. Connie regrets leaving what little he had in Oklahoma and derides Rosasharn's hopeless dreams of home and family. He storms off, never to return.
The next day a contractor and a deputy show up with more handbills offering work. Al is suspicious and Casy asks to see the contractor's license, causing a stir. When the squatters refuse to go, the situation becomes agitated. The deputy tries to cuff Tom, but he escapes, and the ensuing bullet meant for him hits a nearby woman, killing her instantly. In the growing scuffle, the deputy is knocked unconscious and the contractor runs for safety. As the deputy comes to, Casy chooses to take the blame, as the Joads make a beeline for the truck. Rosasharn is distraught, for Connie hasn't come back. Noah goes to the creek to fetch a bucket of water and instead submerges himself.
- INTERMISSION -
Newly relocated at a government settlement camp, Ruthie and Winfield marvel at a flushing toilet, the first they have ever seen. The camp makes them feel like people again, though Ma is startled to discover she accidentally has gone into the men's room. Inside the inner shower room, the Men's Committee meets. Outside, the women gather as they wash clothes, instructing Ma on the rules of the camp.
Rosasharn is now very pregnant and despondent over Connie's departure. Ma tries to comfort her with sage advice. Later, at the camp hoedown, the Joads joyfully take part in a square dance. Vigilantes try to cause a disturbance, but the crowd, aware of their plan to create a riot, makes the expulsion of the intruders part of the dance. When two deputies arrive to break up what they think will be a fight, they leave disappointed. The local farm owners are clearly unhappy with the camp's growing autonomy.
Pa shows everyone a new handbill with great enthusiasm, but the crowd responds dishearteningly. Nonetheless, they prepare to pack - as good as the camp may be - there is still no way to make money for food as long as they reside there. At Hooper Ranch a strike is in progress, but the Joads and others are quickly ushered by the line, unaware they are scabs. As they pick the peaches, Tom questions what is happening beyond the fence, but is quickly silenced. Though thrilled to finally have some money, Ma soon discovers how inflated prices are at the local commissary. Other things - ladders, housing, showers - also prove to be expensive, and the Joads are barely better off than they were before.
Later that night, Tom takes a closer look at what's going on outside the fence. He discovers a group of men, one of which is Casy, who leads the strike over poor wages, Vigilantes soon arrive and bludgeon Casy to death. Tom interferes and is slashed on the face. He in turn bashes his assailant, killing him.
Now a marked man, Tom has gone into hiding and Ma smuggles him some food. He announces his plan to go off on his own, and they share a tender moment. The remaining Joads find work picking cotton and shelter in a boxcar. Just as the rainy season begins, Rosasharn goes into labor, but delivers a stillborn child.
The raging river has now swallowed its banks and flooded the Joads out of their home. Only Ma, Pa, Ruthie, Winfield and a very weak Rosasharn remain and seek refuge inside a barn. There they find a boy and a starving, nearly dead man. Ma intuitively knows what Rosasharn must do, and ushers everyone else back outside. Rosasharn nourishes the man with her breast.
Courtesy of David Sander and The Minnesota Opera.
Scenes & Musical Sequences
Setting: Oklahoma, Southwestern America, and California in the mid-1930s
ACT 1 From Tom Joad's release from prison to burying Grampa.
ACT 2 From truck stop to Noah's suicide.
ACT 3 From Governent Camp to ending.
Source - Minnesota Opera program.