The day Francie comes home from school and reports that she sat next to a girl who had lice marching through “the lanes of her hair,” Katie goes into action. There is no room in her life for additional trouble or worry. So, she scrubs Francie’s scalp with a cake of the coarse soap that she uses to scrub floors. The next morning, she dips a hair brush in kerosene oil and brushes Francie’s hair vigorously. She then tightly braids Francie’s hair. Francie smells up the whole classroom and the teacher sends home a note, forbidding Katie from putting kerosene in Francie’s hair. Katie dismisses the note, declaring that it is a free country, and puts kerosene oil in Francie’s hair every day.
Katie refuses to allow Francie to catch lice in her hair. Part of this is not wanting to deal with having to constantly wash and check Francie’s hair and scalp for signs of the pests. Katie doesn’t have time for this. Another part may be that poor children already have a reputation for being unclean, and Katie refuses to allow anyone to think that her children are unclean simply because they are poor.
When an epidemic of mumps breaks out, Katie makes Francie and Neeley go to school with buds of garlic sewn into flannel bags worn around their necks. Children avoid them and people huddle away from the Nolan kids in crowded trolley cars. All the same, Katie’s remedy works! It is never clear if the garlic works because other children avoid Francie and Neeley due to the smell, or if the siblings have naturally strong constitutions. However, they never get sick in all their years at school. Francie becomes an outsider due to her stench, but she is accustomed to being alone and regarded as “different.” She does not suffer.
Garlic is said to be an old home remedy for curing the mumps. Often, people consume it by putting it in soup, though it can also be applied to an affected area. It therefore doesn’t make much sense that the children wear garlic around their necks like talismans. Katie may have misunderstood how to apply the remedy, or maybe it didn’t matter to her as long as infected children kept away from Francie and Neeley.