Wartzman uses this comparatively tiny incident to reconstruct a California now far in the past. Politically, the state was torn between left and right, with communism and quasi-fascism at either extreme. Unfailingly fair to all, Wartzman brings to life a rich cast, ranging from the radical journalist Carey McWilliams to the farm worker (whom the author was able to interview many years after the fact) chosen by his employers to burn a copy of The Grapes of Wrath on the street. If there was a hero of sorts, it was county librarian Gretchen Knief, who publicly opposed the ban but was forbidden to speak at a meeting that failed to repeal it.

In the end, Kern County’s establishment was overmatched. It could not stop people from reading the book. And although the county resolution implored Twentieth Century-Fox to desist from adapting the novel, the film was made and became a classic. Perhaps the only satisfaction that came to Kern County was that the Okies themselves, far from remaining a proletariat, climbed the ladder to become respectable middle-class Republicans.

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.