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  • "Danny in the back seat wants a cup a water":Musings on America, Steinbeck, and the Child
  • Barbara A. Heavilin and Cecilia Donohue

Danny in the back seat wants a cup of water.…Danny in the back seat wants a cup of water. Little fella's thirsty.…Danny wants a cup of water.…Danny wants a cup a water.

—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Cheryl K. Chumley of the Washington Times reported that "the July cover of Time Magazine will show a picture of a stern-faced President Donald Trump staring down and towering over a little crying migrant girl, … in white letters against the red-colored cover: 'Welcome to America.' Seriously," Chumley opines, "it's a magazine edition that would make the Kim Jong-uns of the world very, very proud. Time announced its July edition on Twitter this way: 'time's new cover: A reckoning after Trump's border separation policy. What kind of country are we?'"

The answer is troubling. With refugee children dying from improper care on our southern borders; others separated from their parents, often with slim hopes of being reunited; detained children reportedly held in cages or "tent cities" with no books or toys; and a president more bizarrely fixated on building a wall of questionable value than on the plight of human beings—more appropriately designated refugees rather than migrants—who flee from oppression, war, and persistent and unrelenting poverty in their countries of origin. One image is particularly bothersome: a reporter for the Associated Press in McAllen, Texas, "said she … saw officials at the facility scold a group of 5-yearolds for playing around in their cage, telling them to settle down. There are no toys or books. But one boy nearby wasn't playing with the rest.… He was [End Page v] quiet, clutching a piece of paper that was a photocopy of his mother's ID card" (Seperation at the Border, Web). We are left to wonder whether this child is still holding onto that one link to his mother. In her article for CNN, "13,000 Migrant Children in Detention: America's Horrifying Reality," Alice Driver concludes, "If the United States continues to treat children like prisoners, the question is not if but when they will start to die under such conditions." (Web)

John Steinbeck's migrants in The Grapes of Wrath had an advantage over today's refugees/migrants—no one wanted to wrest their children from their arms. If this crime did not break his mighty heart, he would set pen to paper in

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Fig 1.

"Children in Bathing Tub" by Horace Bristol, who used the characters from The Grapes of Wrath to title his photographs. 1938.

Collection of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies.

[End Page vi] defense of what scripture calls "these little ones." Images of needy children and the stranger in the midst run like a thread through his monumental novel, their presence pervasive. Sometimes unnaturally quiet and still, sometimes typically playful, whining, argumentative, engaged in sibling rivalry or tattling, children are present in both interchapters and narrative chapters, from the beginning of the novel to the end. Steinbeck is attentive to them, and insistently, persistently brings to the reader's attention their innocence and vulnerability—and by implication at least, a civilized society's responsibility for their well-being. But even beyond this emphasis is Steinbeck's ability to enable the reader to know what it feels like to be a child of dispossessed parents with no home and no work. In chapter 1, the children are still and silent, oppressed by their fathers' burden of worry and perplexity. When these men begin to hope that they have found a new beginning point for continuing with their lives, the children resume their play very tentatively, attuned to the inner turmoil of the grownups if not to their mental grappling with what to do next, where to go, how to live.

To illustrate further, in interchapter 14, two men squat down before a fire over which a stew is simmering and discuss their plight, their quiet women standing behind them with the children, who...


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