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Of Mice and Men: Exploring the Context with Primary Sources

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This post is by Rebecca Newland, the 2013-2015 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

While some of George and Lennie’s experiences in John Steinbeck’s classic novella Of Mice and Men are universal, such as the dream of a place to call home and the need for friendships, others are directly related to the book’s setting.

Unique Map of California, 1888
Unique Map of California, 1888

One significant element of the novella’s context is George and Lennie’s nomadic life as migrant farm laborers. At the beginning of the book, they have traveled from Weed, California in Siskiyou County to Soledad in Monterey County. Offer students this map of California  created in 1888.

Use the Primary Source Analysis Tool with selected questions from the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Maps to encourage students to take a close look at the map. Deepen the conversation by asking:

  • What can be learned about George and Lennie’s experiences from the map?
  • What information about California can be gathered from the map?
  • How does the map further your understanding of migrant labor in California?
Napa Valley, California. More than twenty-five years a bindle-stiff.
Napa Valley, California. More than twenty-five years a bindle-stiff.

Ask students to define “bindle-stiff.” Next offer this photograph: “Napa Valley, California. More than twenty-five years a bindle-stiff. Walks from the mines to the lumber camps to the farms. The type that formed the backbone of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in California before the war. Subject of Carleton Parker’s ‘Studies on IWW’.”


  • In what way does the photograph fit the students’ definition of “bindle-stiff?” In what ways is it different?
  • What additional insights into George and Lennie’s lives does the photograph offer?

Use the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Sheet Music and Song Sheets to facilitate analysis of the song “I’d Rather Not be on Relief.”

I’d Rather Not be on Relief

Deepen the discussion by asking:

  • In what ways does the song reflect George and Lennie’s experiences?
  • What questions does the song raise about the Depression and the struggles people faced?

Consider further investigation related to the lives of migrant laborers today, perhaps in your state or region.

Comments (4)

  1. This map is a wonderful resource- thank you.

    I am interested in any documents from the WPA that might include interviews or stories of actual ‘bindle stiffs’ or migrant workers from this era.

    I am also interested in any primary sources that have to do with how the mentally handicapped were treated (both by society and by the professional medical world).

    If you have a chance to expand your search to include these things, I would really appreciate hearing from you.

    Thanks so much!

    • Hi Kellie, Thanks for the compliment. We don’t have a lot on how the mentally handicapped were treated within our teaching resources but hope we can change that soon. However you might want to take a peek at some of the following posts with a focus on disability awareness: Explore our post on exploring deaf culture, our interview with Eric Eldritch for Disability Awareness Month, which included links to some great sources on people with a variety of disabilities, our visit to the River School where one of the teachers who participated in our summer teacher institute used what she learned with her hearing impaired second graders.

  2. GREAT POST!! Thanks, Rebecca and Danna!
    As a language arts teacher I think of the Library of Congress website as my own extraordinary resource room for support materials when teaching with adolescent literature! These ideas a great way to help develop vocabulary and establish sense of place. Wonderful!

  3. This is a wonderful exploration of primary sources that I want to use with my students this year. At what point in the novella do you recommend using these materials?

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