The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck
Ma Joad is one tough cookie, and she also knows how to salt a pig. We first get to know Ma Joad through a story Tom tells the preacher and Muley Graves:
"I seen her beat the hell out of a tin peddler with a live chicken one time 'cause he give her an argument. She had the chicken in one han', an' the ax in the other, about to cut its head off. She aimed to go for that peddler with the ax, but she forgot which hand was which, an' she takes after him with the chicken." (6.48)
Not only is Ma ready and willing to beat people up, but she also knows how to decapitate a chicken's head. She's pretty much the bomb.com.
Ma Joad has a strong intuition. She starts to doubt the idea of going to California before anyone else does. She dreams of having a little white house surrounded by orange trees and of reaching out and grabbing as many oranges as her hands can carry, but she also tells Tom, "'I'm scared of stuff so nice. I ain't got faith. I'm scared somepin ain't so nice about it'" (10.4). Ma sees right through the California dream. Maybe Ma Joad has such a strong intuition because she's experienced to much in her life. Tom notices something in his mother's eyes when he is first reunited with her: "Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding" (8.40).
Ma is the backbone of the family:
She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt and fear, she has practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials […] from position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; from her position as arbiter she had become as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess. She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone. (8.40).
Ma Joad does not have an easy life. However, she remains cool, calm, and collected, even when she's lost her house, her land, and has to burn her earthly possessions. She has to be solid as a rock, so that her family doesn't fall apart. Without her, the Joads would not be the Joads.
When we first meet Ma Joad, she is a strong woman. When we see her in the very last chapter, she is a strong woman. We didn't think it possible, but her strength only grows throughout the course of the novel. In fact, her initial strength transforms into a different kind of strength. We can't really pinpoint exactly what this new kind of strength is, but we know it's one that it is dead set on survival at all costs. As the family continues to meet obstacle after obstacle, it seems like Pa Joad doesn't quite know how to keep it together. But Ma Joad does.
Because she's able to keep her cool, we feel like Ma Joad becomes the unofficial head of the family (which, in a time that loved strict gender roles, is a pretty big deal). Can you imagine what would have happened if Ma Joad decided that she liked the Colorado River too much to leave it, as Noah Joad did? Would the Joads have made it as far as they did without Ma Joad?
Lastly, we want to briefly chit chat about the dynamic Joad duo. It's no secret that Ma's favorite child happens to be Tom. She nearly leaps for joy when Tom returns home after four years, and we later learn that she's kept track of him, has kept all of the newspaper clippings about his trial stored safely in a little box. Together, Ma and Tom form the backbone of the Joad family. The only time we see Ma Joad crack in the slightest is when she is forced to say goodbye to her son. The two have a deep bond that we readers can feel.