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Ma represents the "citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken." Because she is stronger than Pa is, she becomes the guiding force behind the family. She is always calm and controlled in her emotional reactions. She is impenetrable and does not allow any event to upset her. She has long ago denied herself from acknowledging hurt and fear for the interest of the family in general. She has to build a strong outward demeanor so as to keep the family from losing heart. Her hazel eyes seem to have experienced all the possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a calm and superhuman understanding.
During the novel, Ma becomes increasingly influential in the decision-making process and acts with authority. It is Ma who decides to take Casy along with them to California when Pa doubts whether they will be able to feed another person. Ma exhibits an ample amount of wisdom and tact in managing her family since she is thoroughly familiar with the nature of each member and treats them accordingly. She knows that if Pa breaks down, the family will be destroyed and, therefore, knowingly incites him into anger so that he will be more energetic. She understands that Rose of Sharon is worried about her pregnancy and the fact that Connie has deserted her. She recognizes that Al does not share Tom's sense of responsibility. She sees the quiet strength underlying Tom's demeanor of a drifter. She sympathizes with Uncle John's need to drown his sorrows in drink and does not criticize him for spending money at a time when the family needs it most. She cooperates with everybody and treats each family member according to his or her need.
Ma devotes herself to protecting the unity of the family and retaining its spirit. She realizes that in their migrant way of life, the family is the only thing that is important and valuable: "All we got is the family unbroke." When the Wilsons' car breaks down and Tom suggests that they continue traveling on separately, Ma refuses to allow this. She threatens to fight Pa with a jack-handle until he sees her point of view. When they stop beside the Colorado River, Ma threatens to hit a deputy with a skillet. Her concern for the family to cross the desert safely prompts her not to tell anybody that Granma has died. Casy is filled with admiration at Ma's extraordinary strength: "All night long an' she was alone . . . there's a woman so great with love--she scares me. Makes me afraid an' mean." She faces all the pressures acting on the family with a quiet determination.
Ma embraces the love of humankind in which Casy believes. Ma shows her awareness of the potentiality of organized action early in the novel when Tom returns from prison. She tells him that he cannot fight the system alone but thinks that something could be achieved if all the sharecroppers united together and protested against their eviction. Casy eventually helps to organize such united group action, and Tom leaves the family to translate Casy's ideas into action. Ma shows a readiness to help other people: she acts charitably when she leaves some food and money for the Wilsons; she leaves some stew out of her own meager individual share for the starving children at the Hooverville Camp; and she gives Tom her last dollars to help in the effort to unite the people. In the last chapter of the novel, Ma goes beyond her primary concern for her family to embrace humanity: "Use' ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do."
Ma expresses the spirit of the novel. She says, "If you're in trouble or hurt or need--go to poor people. They're the only ones that'll help." The novel is filled with incidences of this helpfulness: the clerk at the Hooper ranch store helps Ma by lending her ten cents to buy sugar since he cannot allow her to take it on credit; Al, in the diner, sells the family bread and candy at reduced prices; and Tom is sold spare parts at a cheap price since the salesman believes the boss usually cheats the migrants. Ma also expresses a Whitmanian faith in the ability of the people to survive. Ma believes that "us people will go on livin' when all them people is gone . . . We're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why we're the people--we go on." Ma believes that they are the chosen ones who will endure every hardship and continue to people the world.