The cars of the migrants scuttle westwards like bugs during the daytime. At
night they cluster together seeking shelter and water. Twenty families
set up a temporary world, and "the twenty families became one family."
They share their lives, their food, and their hopes. As morning dawns,
this temporary world is torn down. Within the temporary worlds, codes
and laws are established; leaders emerge, and families learn what "rights
must be observed." When a rule is broken, there are two possible
punishments: a quick murderous fight to settle matters or ostracism.
This interchapter depicts the new migrant society. The migrants agreeably
help each other and fight their loneliness by sharing their experiences
of the journey. The small family unit becomes assumed into a larger unit
composed of about twenty families. They make their own set of laws, which
operate smoothly because everyone understands and accepts them; they also
know the penalties for breaking the laws. The establishment of these temporary
worlds foreshadows the Weedpatch camp in California, which is managed
by the people themselves without the interference of the police. Peter
Lisca sees chapter 17 as the Deuteronomy (i.e. the fifth book of canonical
Jewish and Christian Scripture containing Mosaic laws and narrative material)
of the novel. He establishes an analogy between the Israelites receiving
the new Law in their exodus and the establishment of their own laws by
the migrants. This context, according to Lisca, makes the westward journey
of the Joads an archetype of mass migration.
The Joads are stopped in Arizona by a border guard who wants to know where they are going and the duration of their stay in Arizona. They finally come to the border of the Californian desert and stop near a river to await nightfall before attempting to cross. A stout woman scrubbing clothes by the side of the river cautions them that a policeman will come soon to look them over. The Joads and the Wilsons pitch their tents anyway. The men go to take a bath in the river. They sit in the water and feel the tug of the current. A man and his son who is going back home and telling of the deplorable conditions in California join them. He says that he could not make a living in California, for there is no steady work. He would rather starve with his own folks back home than with people who hate him. He tells them about a man who owns about a million acres of land but does not use it for farming purposes. The people in California are scared stiff because they know that the migrants are desperate for work and will do anything to get it. In spite of this news, Uncle John, a man of few words, says that they are going to California anyway; they will work if they get work, and if they don't, they will sit on their tails.
Tom crawls into a shady cave to lie down. He is soon joined by Noah, who says that he is not going with the rest of them, for he knows that nobody in the family really cares for him. He plans to stay by this nice river. Tom cannot persuade him to change his mind, and Noah walks down the riverbank.
Granma is lying on a mattress inside the tent. She is restlessly tossing her head from side to side. Ma and Rose of Sharon sit on either side of her with alarmed expressions. Granma seems to be calling out to Grampa in her delirious state. Ma explains to Rose of Sharon about the inevitable process of birth and death. A red ant climbs up on the folds of loose skin on Granma's neck. Ma reaches quickly and picks it off and crushes it between her forefinger and thumb. A woman comes in and wants to hold a prayer meeting for Granma, but Ma refuses. The woman leaves and holds the meeting anyway in her own tent at a distance. Granma quiets down and goes to sleep. Ma reproaches herself for her rudeness to the woman.
Ma and Rose of Sharon lie down to rest. Rose of Sharon tells Ma again of the plans made by her and Connie. Meanwhile a police officer arrives and orders them to leave before morning, saying that he did not want any "Okies" in the area. Ma's face blackens with anger, and she threatens the policeman with a skillet. Ma cannot comprehend the callous attitude of the police officer.
Ma sends Ruthie to call Tom and tells him of her encounter with the policeman. He explains the antipathy of the people towards migrants from Oklahoma. He then tells her of Noah's departure, and she worries about the family is breaking up. Pa blames himself for Noah's departure.
The Joads prepare to leave when Ivy Wilson comes in to say that they cannot continue since his wife, Sairy, is very ill. Ma suggests that they wait until Sairy gets well and then continue together; but Mr. Wilson tells them to carry on. He requests Casy to see Sairy and say a prayer, but Casy resists. When he learns that she is dying from cancer and the end is near, Casy agrees to pray silently.
The Joads prepare for the desert. They leave some money and some pork for the Wilsons and depart with lots of water. On their way, they stop at a service station. A boy working there thinks that the Okies are not really human since their suffering exceeds the human capacity to bear. Ma lies with Granma on the mattress and repeatedly says that the "family got to get acrost." Uncle John talks to Casy about his sins and wonders whether he has brought the misery on the family.
As they near Dagget, the Joads have to stop at another border inspection station, and the officer says that he has to check all their belongings to see that they are not carrying vegetables and seeds. Ma pleads with them to let the truck pass as they have a very sick old woman who urgently needs medical help. The officer lets them pass and says they can find a doctor in Barstow, which is only eight miles ahead. When they reach the next stop, however, Ma says that Granma is all right and does not need a doctor. She lied earlier because she is afraid that if they stop they will never get across the desert. Nobody can understand Ma's actions.
After boring their way all night through the hot darkness of the desert, the
Joads finally see the rich Californian valleys in the distance. Ma reveals
that Granma has died early in the night; she did not tell anybody because
she wanted the family to get across safely. Ma's extraordinary strength
and love amaze everybody.
This chapter again contains a note of foreboding that California will not fulfill the hopes and aspirations of the Joads. The account of the horrible working conditions and the contemptuous attitude of the Californians towards the migrants by the stranger and his son are reinforced when the police officer warns Ma to leave before morning as he does not want any "Okies" settling there. This is the first time that the Joads hear the term "Okie" used derogatorily.
After the family reaches the Colorado River and bathe there before attempting to cross the great Californian desert, Noah decides he will not continue the arduous journey with the family. The symbolic baptismal bath gives Noah a new lease of life, and he decides to strike out on his own. Noah's departure foreshadows the fact that as economic and physical hardships increase, the family as a unit will be unable to bear the pressure and break down. The family is already diminished. Granpa has died and by the end of the chapter Granma dies as well. The Wilsons have become an integral part of the family, and Sairy's illness forces them to stay behind.
Faced with the disruption of the family, Ma's strength increases. She devotes
all her energies to keeping the remaining family together. When Granma
dies she does not tell anybody because she wants the family to cross the
desert safely. She displays extraordinary strength and love, which wins
everybody's praise and approval. When they are finally across the desert
and see the green California valleys, Mom regrets that Granpa and Granma
are not alive to see it. Tom tells her that they were incapable of new
experiences at their age. They was too ol'. Who's really seein' it is
Ruthie an' Winfiel'.