A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by

Betty Smith

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Johnny Nolan Character Analysis

The husband of Katie Nolan and the father of their three children, Francie, Neeley, and Laurie. Johnny is the son of Ruthie and Mickey, who were Irish immigrants. He had three brothers, Andy, Georgie, and Frankie, all of whom were also singing waiters. Johnny’s true and unfulfilled ambition is to be a professional singer. He starts singing in saloons and waiting on tables when he is twelve, and he and his brothers later form a singing group—the Nolan Quartette. All of Johnny’s brothers die before the age of thirty, though, and Johnny is the only one to have children. With his “wavy blond hair,” blue eyes, and slender frame. Johnny has “handsome, devil-may-care” looks that match his free-spirited attitude. He is two years older than Katie, who marries him because she likes the way he sings, dances, and dresses. Despite his poverty, Johnny takes great pride in his appearance—wearing a suit always decorated with his green Waiter’s Union button and going to the barber three times a week, when he has the money. He is a dreamer who privileges his desire to sing over finding work that generates better income. He is also a proud supporter of unions and a Democrat but has a reputation for being an unsteady worker, due both to his alcoholism and his unwillingness to acquire more reliable employment. Early in their marriage, Katie learns that she cannot depend on Johnny when he gets fired from a school custodial job that they initially took on together. At the end of his life, he is fired from working as a singing waiter and thrown out of the Waiters’ Union. He dies of pneumonia and acute alcoholism at the age of 34.

Johnny Nolan Quotes in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The A Tree Grows in Brooklyn quotes below are all either spoken by Johnny Nolan or refer to Johnny Nolan. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Poverty and Perseverance Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harper Collins edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn published in 1943.
Chapter 7 Quotes

Feeling his arms around her and instinctively adjusting herself to his rhythm, Katie knew that he was the man she wanted. She'd ask nothing more than to look at him and to listen to him for the rest of her life. Then and there, she decided that those privileges were worth slaving for all her life. Maybe that decision was her great mistake. She should have waited until some man came along who felt that way about her. Then her children would not have gone hungry; she would not have had to scrub floors for their living and her memory of him would have remained a tender shining thing. But she wanted Johnny Nolan and no one else and she set out to get him.

Related Characters: Johnny Nolan, Katie Nolan, Hildy O’Dair
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

Life was going too swiftly for Johnny. He had a wife and two babies before

he was old enough to vote. His life was finished before it had a chance to begin. He was doomed and no one knew it better than Johnny Nolan. Katie had the same hardships as Johnny and she was nineteen, two years younger. It might be said that she, too, was doomed. Her life, too, was over before it began. But there the similarity ended. Johnny knew he was doomed and accepted it. Katie wouldn't accept it. She started a new life where her old one left off. She exchanged her tenderness for capability. She gave up her dreams

and took over hard realities in their place. Katie had a fierce desire for survival which made her a fighter. Johnny had a hankering after immortality which made him a useless dreamer. And that was the great difference between these two who loved each other so well.

Related Characters: Neeley Nolan, Johnny Nolan, Katie Nolan
Page Number: 96-97
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 26 Quotes

Gently, Teacher explained the difference between a lie and a story. A lie was something you told because you were mean or a coward. A story was something you made up out of something that might have happened. Only you didn't tell it like it was; you told it like you thought it should have been […] Katie was annoyed at this tendency and kept warning Francie to tell the plain truth and to stop romancing. But Francie just couldn't tell the plain undecorated truth. She had to put something to it […] Although Katie had this same flair for coloring an incident and Johnny himself lived in a half-dream world, yet they tried to squelch these things in their child. Maybe they had a good reason. Maybe they knew their own gift of imagination colored too rosily the poverty and brutality of their lives and made them able to endure it. Perhaps Katie thought that if they did not have this faculty they would be clearer-minded; see things as they really were, and seeing them loathe them and somehow find a way to make them better.

Related Characters: Francie Nolan, Johnny Nolan, Katie Nolan
Page Number: 198-199
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 39 Quotes

One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer,

like the artist, must strive for beauty always […] Drunkenness is neither truth nor beauty. It’s a vice. Drunkards belong in jail, not in stories. And poverty. There is no excuse for that. There's work enough for all who want it. People are poor because they're too lazy to work. There's nothing beautiful about laziness.

Related Characters: Miss Garnder (speaker), Francie Nolan, Johnny Nolan, Katie Nolan
Page Number: 321-322
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 52 Quotes

“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing,” thought Francie, “something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains—a cup of strong hot coffee when you're blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you're alone-just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”

Related Characters: Francie Nolan (speaker), Johnny Nolan, Corporal Leo “Lee” Rhynor
Page Number: 457
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 56 Quotes

He buttoned up his coat jauntily and Francie saw that he wore their father's signet ring. It was true then—what Granma had said: that the Rommely women had the gift of seeing the ghosts of their beloved dead. Francie saw her

father.

Page Number: 490
Explanation and Analysis:

She liked Ben. She liked him an awful lot. She wished that she could love him. If only he wasn't so sure of himself all the time. If only he’d stumble just

once. If only he needed her. Ah, well. She had five years to think it over.

Page Number: 492
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire A Tree Grows in Brooklyn LitChart as a printable PDF.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn PDF

Johnny Nolan Character Timeline in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The timeline below shows where the character Johnny Nolan appears in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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...family of four. People in the neighborhood, however, know her situation: she is married to Johnny Nolan, a loveable and handsome drunk. (full context)
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At the baker’s, Francie picks out four buns with the most sugar on them. Johnny does not come home for dinner. Usually, he spends Saturdays at the Union Headquarters, waiting... (full context)
Chapter 3
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Johnny comes home at 5:00 PM. He asks where Katie is and Francie says that she... (full context)
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Francie once visited the Union Headquarters to bring Johnny an apron and carfare to get to a job. He was wearing the tuxedo that... (full context)
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...thoughts away from that memory and listens to her father, who is reminiscing with her. Johnny smokes a cigar and recalls that he was never able to hold a job for... (full context)
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Johnny throws his “half-smoked cigar” out of the window and tells Francie that, if he gets... (full context)
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...get dressed then walks with him to the trolley car. She sees women smiling at Johnny until they notice Francie by his side. They pass Gabriel’s Hardware Store and look at... (full context)
Chapter 6
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...Francie hears her father singing softly and coming up the stairs. He’s singing “Molly Malone.” Johnny and Katie play a game in which she opens the door and lets him in... (full context)
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Francie and Neeley get out of bed and everyone gathers at the table while Johnny pulls out the three dollars that he has earned. He gives each of his children... (full context)
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...bed and falls asleep immediately. Francie goes back to sitting by the window. Katie and Johnny sit in the kitchen, where they talk until daybreak. Johnny tells her about his work... (full context)
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...too. She will think “long thoughts about the nasturtiums in the brown bowl.” Katie and Johnny reminisce in the kitchen, recalling when they first met. Johnny was dating Hildy O’Dair at... (full context)
Chapter 7
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In the summer of 1900, Johnny Nolan meets Katie Rommely. Hildy O’Dair, Katie’s best friend, invites Katie along when she and... (full context)
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...menstrual cramps and cannot work. She gets out fifteen minutes before closing time to meet Johnny, who is waiting on the corner with his friends. Johnny sees Katie and waves at... (full context)
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...stream out of the Castle Braid Factory, including Hildy. She smiles “possessively” when she sees Johnny, but the smile turns into a grimace of hate when she sees him with Katie.... (full context)
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Katie and Johnny become engaged after a four-month courtship. They marry in Katie’s church on New Year’s Day... (full context)
Chapter 8
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...dies, the boys swear that they will never leave their mother, Ruthie. Six months later, Johnny marries Katie. Johnny’s choice earns Katie her new mother-in-law’s hatred. Ruthie hoped to keep “all... (full context)
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About a year after Johnny got married, Frankie, “whom many thought even handsomer than Andy,” stumbles home drunk and falls... (full context)
Chapter 9
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After their marriage, Johnny and Katie go to live on Bogart Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Johnny chooses the street... (full context)
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At the public school job, Katie and Johnny each earn fifty dollars a month, which is a good salary for people of their... (full context)
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Katie is screaming in pain when Johnny and Mrs. Gindler, the midwife, finally arrive. The apartment is filled with women from the... (full context)
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...thinks that the child doesn’t look very well, but she says nothing to Katie. When Johnny arrives home, Evy thinks about lecturing him but, seeing his pale and frightened face, she... (full context)
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Johnny looks at the baby. He is holding some avocadoes that he bought, then he collapses... (full context)
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While Johnny is in the kitchen, drinking coffee, a boy comes from the school with a note... (full context)
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After Johnny takes Mary Rommely to see Katie, he goes out to look for another job. Katie... (full context)
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...Katie’s apartment after work. She declares Francie “the most beautiful baby in the world,” though Johnny is skeptical, given how “blue and wizened” she is. Sissy then goes out and buys... (full context)
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Johnny’s brother, Georgie, tells him that they need another man at his restaurant to sing and... (full context)
Chapter 10
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When Katie tells Johnny, he worries again. The idea of a second child makes him feel “trapped.” He is... (full context)
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...grow up, Katie loses her tenderness and develops what people call “character.” She still loves Johnny dearly, but she is no longer wildly in love with him. She loves Francie because... (full context)
Chapter 11
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Johnny celebrates his voting birthday by going on a three-day drinking binge. Katie locks him in... (full context)
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...her dress over it. She goes to Katie’s and asks to be left alone with Johnny. Katie locks Sissy in the bedroom with Johnny. Johnny begs Sissy for a drink and... (full context)
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Whenever Johnny wakes up and becomes afraid, Sissy gives him a drink of whisky. Whenever he jerks... (full context)
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...they are sisters. Sissy dismisses the accusation and Katie is reassured enough to focus on Johnny. Sissy says that he will be fine when he wakes up, but she warns Katie... (full context)
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Katie wonders aloud why she married Johnny. Sissy says that Katie married him because she wanted to sleep with Johnny but did... (full context)
Chapter 12
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Katie is ashamed to stay in the neighborhood after Johnny’s drinking binge. She finds a house where she can get free rent in exchange for... (full context)
Chapter 13
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...To Francie, this is the largest body of water she has ever seen. Katie and Johnny work to keep the building clean in exchange for their rent. During the summer, the... (full context)
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A year passes. Katie works harder every season. Johnny works less and drinks more. Katie continues to read to them and humorously improvises when... (full context)
Chapter 14
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...involves sex, though one could also perceive the episode as quite innocent. On Saturday afternoons, Johnny is at Union Headquarters, waiting for a job, and Katie fixes sandwiches and coffee for... (full context)
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...box, breaking it into bits. They forget about the string hanging out of the window. Johnny happens to be walking back home to get a fresh dickey and collar for an... (full context)
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...is “bad.” They also agree not to tell Mary because Sissy is “her eye-apple.” When Johnny comes home, Katie tells him that Sissy is never again allowed into their home. In... (full context)
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...they have the roof to themselves. On moving day, while Katie argues with the movers, Johnny takes Francie up to the roof, where she can see the Williamsburg Bridge, the Manhattan... (full context)
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Johnny asks Francie how old she is. She says that she will soon be seven, which... (full context)
Chapter 16
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...wrapped around his head. It is a laundry with only one window. When Francie takes Johnny’s soiled shirt there, the man whisks it under the counter, takes out “a square of... (full context)
Chapter 17
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...minutes each day. Over time, all three of them learn to play the piano. When Johnny hears about Maggie Tynmore’s voice lessons, he offers to repair a broken sash cord in... (full context)
Chapter 18
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...clinic at 11:00 AM. Katie cannot go with them because she has to work and Johnny is at Union Headquarters, waiting for another job. Neeley is terrified and begins wailing. Francie... (full context)
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...the injection swells and turns both dark-green and yellowish. Her mother accuses her of scratching. Johnny comes home and assures Francie that she is fine and that, when he was vaccinated,... (full context)
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Johnny smokes another cigar and then gets in bed next to Katie, who is already asleep.... (full context)
Chapter 23
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Francie waits up that night waiting for Johnny to arrive home. When he does, she whispers into his ear about the school and... (full context)
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Johnny and Francie reach the school. He tells Francie that they will find a house and... (full context)
Chapter 24
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...seems to be the greatest holiday of all because it belongs to the whole neighborhood. Johnny shows Francie the Oyster House on Scholes Street where the powerful members of City Hall... (full context)
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...He notes how pretty Katie is. Francie confirms that she is. She also points out Johnny sitting beside her and waits for him to say something about how handsome her father... (full context)
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Katie asks Johnny if he knows about Sergeant McShane. Johnny says that he is nicknamed the Honest Cop.... (full context)
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...see the actual man. On Election Day, a man knocks on the door and hands Johnny a cigar, compliments of the Democratic Party. He also confirms that Johnny should be at... (full context)
Chapter 25
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...notices that her father is drinking more than usual. Francie dreads “the drinking periods” because Johnny is not the man she knows. He becomes very quiet and regards her as a... (full context)
Chapter 26
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...a Thanksgiving dinner of pot roast and homemade noodles. They listen to stories of how Johnny went around on Thanksgiving as a boy. (full context)
Chapter 27
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...to pull the tree home. When Francie and Neeley get to their building, they call Johnny to help them get the tree up the narrow stairs. Johnny is so excited by... (full context)
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...educated and will become a doctor. Singing fine doesn’t help; after all, it never helped Johnny, whom she still loves sometimes but finds worthless. (full context)
Chapter 28
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Francie talks to her father about it. Johnny makes her stick out her tongue and then diagnoses her with “a bad case” of... (full context)
Chapter 29
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In the late summer of that year, Johnny Nolan decides that his children must see the ocean. He plans to take them to... (full context)
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...his eyes go to his mother’s bosom. Gussie’s mother reports her success to the neighborhood. Johnny, too, hears the story and feels contempt for Gussie for cheating Tilly out of something... (full context)
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...out for Canarsie. Francie is eleven, Neeley is ten, and Tilly is three years old. Johnny wears a tuxedo, a derby hat, and a fresh collar and dicky. Little Tilly’s mother,... (full context)
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Johnny puts the fishing gear in the boat and helps the children in. While trying to... (full context)
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Horrified, Francie, Neeley, and Tilly watch Johnny impale an earthworm on a hook. The sun grows bright and hot. After what seems... (full context)
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After lunch, Johnny rows Francie, Neeley, and Tilly back out to sea. He sings as he rows. Eventually,... (full context)
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Johnny says that it’s important that he bring home fish, even if they’re not fish that... (full context)
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Johnny sits with the fish in his lap. More people get on the trolley and it... (full context)
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When Johnny arrives home, Katie gives him a tongue lashing and says that he isn’t fit to... (full context)
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Johnny sits at the window wondering how the day could have gone so wrong. He thinks... (full context)
Chapter 30
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...to her mother, but Katie says that she has no time to read it and Johnny is at Union Headquarters. Francie continues to look at her name in print. Her excitement... (full context)
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...so it only gets fresh air on the weekends. The child looks just like Joanna. Johnny compares the baby girl’s skin to a magnolia petal, her hair to a raven’s wing,... (full context)
Chapter 32
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By the beginning of April, Johnny hasn’t worked for three weeks. He is sick repeatedly for the next couple of months.... (full context)
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...a composition entitled “My Ambition,” in which she writes about wanting to be a playwright. Johnny continues to get sick. When Katie finds and reads Francie’s diary, she makes Francie cross... (full context)
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...new horse, Bessie, who does worse than wet on him. In July, Sergeant McShane brings Johnny home when he is “sick.” The Nolans spend the first week of July playing “North... (full context)
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By mid-August, Johnny has another job and works steadily for three weeks. The family has “wonderful suppers,” then... (full context)
Chapter 33
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Johnny goes to his friend, Burt, who works as a night watchman at the corner bank... (full context)
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When Johnny takes the gun home, he tells Francie and Neeley not to touch it. Francie thinks... (full context)
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...starts bawling. Katie tells him to stop and go to get his father. Neeley finds Johnny at McGarrity’s. When he hears Neeley’s story, he drops his glass and runs out with... (full context)
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The cop turns to Johnny and asks him where he keeps the gun. He tells him about the hiding place... (full context)
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When Francie wakes up the next morning, Johnny is there to tell her it was all a dream. As time passes, it seems... (full context)
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...wonders if McShane will ever have the happiness he deserves. Meanwhile, he thinks of how Johnny won’t last much longer, with the way he drinks. He thinks of how Katie will... (full context)
Chapter 34
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...tells the truth about Sarah. As a result, Francie finds out, too. Katie also tells Johnny, who then uses it as an opportunity to question his own paternity until he sees... (full context)
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Johnny returns late, singing “Molly Malone” at the door, as is his routine. He expects Katie... (full context)
Chapter 35
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Christmas is a week away. Francie’s fourteenth birthday has passed. Johnny hasn’t spoken to the family in more than two weeks. Yesterday, he came in during... (full context)
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...feel “safe and comfortable.” While they’re talking, someone pounds on the door. Francie knows it’s Johnny. They then hear his voice, demanding to be let in. (full context)
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Johnny lunges inside. His tuxedo is dirty and his children have never seen it look so.... (full context)
Chapter 36
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Johnny Nolan dies three days later. He goes to bed the night he returns home and... (full context)
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...kitchen. The children come before Katie, who is sitting by the window. She announces that Johnny is dead. Francie stands there, numb. Katie says that they are not to cry because... (full context)
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Katie next handles Johnny’s burial with a greedy undertaker, but she doesn’t protest the way in which he does... (full context)
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...Aunt Evy tells Katie to throw them out, but she refuses to blame McGarrity for Johnny’s death. Though Johnny had an outstanding debt of thirty-eight dollars at the bar, McGarrity says... (full context)
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...starts sobbing wildly. Katie turns around to see what woman would dare to weep for Johnny. When she sees that it is Hildy O’Dair, she softens. She notices that Hildy looks... (full context)
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...suits Francie because she doesn’t have to see or think about the coffin inside and Johnny’s dead body. After the burial, the coaches go in different directions. Ruthie goes off with... (full context)
Chapter 38
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...launches him into a long talk about his boyhood in Ireland and his memories of Johnny. McGarrity talks for two hours without stopping. As he talks, he feels his lost manhood,... (full context)
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Francie is glad for the job at McGarrity’s; it keeps her from missing Johnny. After school, Francie and Neeley go to church for “instruction,” since they will be confirmed... (full context)
Chapter 39
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Francie then thinks about how much she misses Johnny and how she knows that Katie loves Neeley more than her. She worries suddenly about... (full context)
Chapter 42
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...but she’s surprised when she sees red roses on her desk, with a note from Johnny, who’s been dead for six months. Aunt Sissy tells her that, a year ago, Johnny... (full context)
Chapter 45
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...the pulpit. He asks for the congregation’s prayers “for the repose of the soul of John Nolan .” Nearly a thousand people kneel for the soul of a man whom maybe a... (full context)