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Here are the main ideas in Chapters 17-21 of The Grapes of Wrath.
Chapter 17 describes how the families traveling to find a better life camp along the road and become one large family. While they are together, rules are established within the group. Those who will not follow the rules are forced to leave, while those who conform are a part of this larger "family," and visit as families might at the end of the day, sharing stories and dreams, and then resting for the trials that will be faced the following day.
In Chapter 18, Steinbeck describes what happens to the Joads as they reach the Arizona border. A man they meet reports to Tom that migrant workers (such as themselves) are called "Okies," which has become a derogatory term. Noah decides to settle at a river he and Tom visit. In a delirium, Granma speaks to Grampa.
Ivy Wilson reports that they will not be traveling with the Joads any farther, as Mrs. Wilson is ill. (She has cancer, but has told no one.) Casy refuses to pray over her, and the family leaves behind money and food for the Wilsons.
As the family reaches the California border, Ma reports to the border guard that they are rushing a sick woman to the doctor and he allows them to pass, but when they arrive at a town along the way, she says Granma doesn't need a doctor. When the group finally arrives at the final group of mountains before them, Ma admits that Granma died before they reached the last check point, but she lied in order to guarantee their passage through.
Ma's comment that the "family" seems to be "falling apart" becomes more and more accurate as time passes.
In Chapter 19, the reader learns of the history of the landowners in California. These were people who settled in the area by taking away land from the Mexicans. Ironically, as people pour into the area from the dust bowl, the landowners are fearful that the migrants will take their land from them.
Chapter 20 finds the Joads leaving Granma with the coroner, as they cannot afford a funeral. Tom and the others are warned by a man they meet to act "bull-simple" (mentally slow) in order not to get in trouble with the police. Casy wants to do something to repay the Joan family. Rose of Sharon tells Connie she is sick, he regrets leaving Oklahoma, and walks away. Later, Tom goes looking for him and has to knock him unconscious to bring him back.
Ma cooks for the family what little she has, and leaves some for other hungry children there. A confrontation takes place between Floyd and a contractor about work, and Floyd is arrested. Tom trips a deputy, but Casy takes the blame and is arrested. Tom is trying to control his anger. As they travel on, one town turns them away, so Tom drives around it.
Chapter 21 describes how the landowners feel threatened by the migrant workers. They arm themselves. They keep wages low but raise the cost for the products they sell to control or drive smaller growers out of business. They don't understand the hunger and fear they see in the faces of the newly arriving migrant workers. They convince themselves that they are in the right; they have lost sight of the needs of these segments of humanity hit hardest by the Depression.
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