To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.

– John Steinbeck

The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 1. These are the opening lines of John Steinbeck’s masterpiece exposing the cruelty of the Great Depression and struggles of migrant farmworkers forced to flee west from the Dust Bowl that struck the southern plains of the U.S. It was Steinbeck’s journalism that inspired the 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Three years earlier he was commissioned by the San Francisco News to write on migrant labor camps in California’s Salinas Valley. His series of seven articles, titled <em>The Harvest Gypsies</em>, described the migrants’ desperate conditions. Steinbeck explained his purpose in writing the novel about the plight of dispossessed tenant farmers driven from their homes. He famously said: "I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this." The opening quote takes the reader to the heart of Oklahoma, to its land and its agriculture, greatly damaged by the severe dust storms of the 1930s. This is suggested in the description of the earth as "scarred" – implying that it is disfigured or injured. The red country and gray country refer literally to the red soil characteristic of Oklahoma and caused by its high iron content and the normal brown-gray clay found in other parts of the state. But there is also a symbolism in these colors, with red signalling danger and warnings and gray being associated with sadness. This may be seen as foreshadowing the difficulties that the "Okie" Joad family will face, first losing their home to foreclosure, then setting off on their epic odyssey to California. In Steinbeck’s defining novel, the land becomes one of the most important characters after the Joads. The entire first chapter is devoted to an apocalypic description of the slow decay of the land that forces the great migration to California during the destructive Dust Bowl of the 1930s.