The sense of foreboding in this section is heightened as we witness the fulfillment of Ma Joad’s greatest fear—the unraveling of the family. In addition to the grandparents’ deaths, the reclusive Noah decides to remain alone on the river. Family is the foundation of the Joads’ will to survive, for, as Chapter 17 makes clear, migrant families were able to endure the harsh circumstances of life on the road by uniting with other families. Collectively, they share a responsibility that would be too great for one family to bear alone. Moreover, whereas to share a burden is to lighten it, to share a dream is to intensify and concentrate it, making that dream more vivid. Thus “[t]he loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream.” Interestingly, Steinbeck sandwiches these observations between two chapters in which the Joad family not only suffers a decrease in number but also meets with neighbors who have no interest in cooperating with them. Increasingly, then, these statements about the importance of togetherness serve not so much as an affirmation of the Joads’ circumstances as an indication of what they are in the process of losing. The grandparents’ deaths and Noah’s departure are tragedies for the Joads.
Faced with these losses, Ma Joad demonstrates her strength as never before. Met by the deputy who evicts her from the camp and disdainfully calls her an “Okie,” Ma chases the man away with a cast-iron skillet. Similarly, she suffers privately with the knowledge of Granma’s death so that the family can successfully cross the desert. These occurrences do take their toll on her: when Tom attempts to comfort her, she warns him not to touch her lest she fall apart. Still, her ability to endure adversity proves remarkable, as does her commitment to delivering her family, or as much of it as she can keep together, into a more prosperous life.