What happens during Ma’s conversation with the storekeeper in The Grapes of Wrath?

During Ma Joad’s conversation with the storekeeper, she does not have enough money to buy everything and requests credit to buy sugar. The storekeeper denies her the credit, but then softens and buys her the sugar with his own money. This kind gesture reaffirms her faith in poor people who stick together.

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The Joads work at a peach orchard in chapter 26 of The Grapes of Wrath. They all pitch in with picking but only manage to earn a dollar. With a slip (voucher) worth a dollar, they can buy some much-needed food at the company store. Ma Joad goes there to get the groceries. The small, bald shopkeeper reminds her of a bird. She tells him that she has the dollar voucher, and he says she can choose anything.

As she indicates her selections, she is shocked at the high prices he quotes. He rationalizes the prices by saying it would cost her more in gas if she had to drive to the store in town. Ma sternly rejects this justification and critically eyes the hamburger meat before deciding to buy it. She continues arguing with the man over every purchase, and then changes her tone and asks him about his situation. He is not the owner, just another employee of the company. She realizes that his mocking attitude is his way of coping for always being challenged over prices that he does not set.

After she finishes shopping and settles up, she realizes that she had forgotten the sugar but has nothing left to spend. She asks the man for ten cents worth of sugar on credit, but he refuses, afraid that he will be fired for breaking the rules. Then he takes a dime out of his pocket and buys the sugar for her, saying she can pay him back with the next slip. Ma concludes,

If you’re in trouble or hurt or need, go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help.

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