John Stienbeck’s, In Dubious Battle is a relentlessly faced-paced, novel of social unrest and the story of a young man’s struggle for identity, In Dubious Battle is set in the California apple country, where a strike by migrant workers against rapacious landowners spirals out of control. Caught up in this upheaval is Jim Nolan, a once aimless man who finds himself in the course of the strike, briefly becomes its leader, and is ultimately crushed in its service.
Jim Nolan’s father was a working man driven to his death by blow of police clubs and pistol butts. As a youngster, Jim witnessed both his father’s courage and his despair. He saw his mother loose even her religious faith as poverty and starvation overwhelmed the family.
Older, but still keenly remembering his youth, with the scars of brutality and starvation deeply embedded in his heart, Jim Nolan became a member of the Communist Party. He was assigned to work with Mac, an able experienced organizer. Together they became the fruit pickers, at a time when the fruit growers had cut wages lower than any worker thought possible. A strike was brewing, and Mac and Jim were determined to carry it along and direct its course.
Luck was with them. Shortly after their arrival at the camp of the workers, Mac, by giving the impression that he was a doctor, delivered the camp leader’s grandchild. Word of his accomplishments spread throughout the area. After Mac and Jim became friends with London, the leader of the camp, and the other workers, they persuaded the fruit pickers to organize and strike for higher wages, and better living conditions. This was not easy to do. As usual the orchard owners had made effective use of communism. Furthermore, the vigilantes were a constant menace, not to mention deputies, troops, and strikebreakers, all hirelings of the fruit growers. In addition, the authorities could always close down the camp by maintaining that it violated the sanitation laws and was a menace to public health. There was also the problem of money and food. The poor migrant workers desperately needed work to supply their daily necessities.
But at last the strike was called, with a little help from old Dan. On the night that the strikers were going to sneak out to greet the strikebreakers, called in by the owners, Mac and Jim were ambushed by the vigilantes. They succeeded in escaping, but Jim was shot in the upper arm/shoulder area. Word of their plain for the next morning had leaked out, and they suspected a spy was in their midst. Never less, the next day they marched out to meet the strikebreakers at the railroad station, and to implore them not to fight against their fellow workers.
Although the police had assembled in force, they seemed afraid of the strikers. During the encounter, Joy, a friend of Mac’s, and an old crippled comrade was shot and killed. The strikers carried the body back to the camp, and over the body of their comrade, Mac delivered a fiery and eloquent speech, exhorting the strikers to carry on, and fight to the finish. This action proved to be the best of all possible spurs to bring the workers together, and the strikers were aroused to carry on the struggle even more fiercely.
Luck was with them in other ways. They had persuaded the father of Al Townsend, who owned a local lunch cart, and gave handouts to party members, to allow them to camp on his farm, after they had promised to pick his crop and protect his property. Doc Burton a philosopher and skeptic, took charge of the sanitation, thus protecting the camp against the health inspectors. Dick, a handsome comrade, used his charm on women in order to get money and food for the strikers.
Meanwhile, the owners tried everything to break up the strike. They attempted to intimidate the workers, to divide them, and to bribe London, but all of their efforts failed. Then another problem arose. The owners had an article published in which it stated that the county was feeding the strikers. The report was not true but those who sympathized with the strikers believed it