Francie Nolan, is an eleven-year-old girl living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with her ten-year-old brother, Neeley, her mother, Katie, and her father, Johnny. Francie and Neeley bring in additional household income by rag-picking, or collecting trash on the street and in their building, and turning in the materials to Carney’s junk business for cash.
When Francie was born, she was so sickly and blue that people believed that she wouldn’t live. Whenever people made this prediction, however, Katie would point to a struggling tree growing out of a grating nearby. Despite receiving little sustenance, the tree’s steady growth demonstrated a will to live, and Katie declared that Francie, too, would survive.
From the age of three, Francie babysits her younger brother while her mother works menial jobs and her father waits for singing-waiter gigs or gets drunk to forget about the mounting pressures of his responsibilities. Francie is also an excellent student. She relishes trips to the library, where she is enchanted by the brown bowl full of seasonal flora that sits on the librarian’s desk, and promises herself that she will read one book a day for as long as she lives. Katie fosters a love for literature in both of her children by reading them pages from Shakespeare and the Protestant Bible every night before bed.
When Francie is seven, she starts school. Though her first experiences there are harsh, they teach her about the inequalities in American society. The school is overcrowded, attended mostly by immigrant children who have difficulties with hygiene, and inhabited by cruel teachers and a sadistic principal. Francie’s first teacher, Miss Briggs, is so contemptuous of poor children that she refuses to let them use the restroom, a rule that one day causes Francie to wet her pants. Her Aunt Sissy addresses the matter with Miss Briggs by claiming that Francie has a kidney problem, and then by threatening the teacher with physical harm if she does not learn to be kinder to Francie. After their conference, Francie is allowed to leave the room to use the toilet.
Francie doesn’t remain in her first school for long, however. While out walking one Saturday in an unfamiliar part of Brooklyn, she discovers a little, old, red-brick school that she would like to attend. Johnny arranges for her to go there by faking Francie’s address. Though the school is forty-eight blocks from where she lives, Francie relishes going to a school where the teachers are not cruel and she does not have to share a desk.
Francie begins writing plays and stories and decides that she will become a writer when she grows up. She is thus briefly disheartened when she gets her first C in English Composition due to her teacher, Mrs. Garnder, being displeased with Francie’s portrayal of the harsh realities of poverty and alcoholism in one of her stories. Mrs. Garnder does not realize that Francie’s story was inspired by her own life and she doesn’t care. Instead, she tells Francie that the purpose of art is to create beauty that will help others forget the ugliness in the world. Francie is unconvinced.
Despite the poverty of her upbringing, Francie is enriched by her closeness to her loving family. She sees herself as a mixture of her mother’s family, the Rommelys, and that of her father, the Nolans. She loves her Aunt Sissy, who is frank and caring, and her Aunt Evy, who does impressions and tells funny stories about her husband, Willie Flittman. Francie admires her grandmother Mary Rommely’s mysticism, devotion to God, and talent for storytelling, but also has a bit of her grandfather Thomas Rommely’s “cruel will.” Francie is dreamy, like Johnny, and practical, like Katie.
During Francie’s childhood, Katie works as a building custodian and keeps tenement houses clean in exchange for rent. Her husband’s unreliability causes the family to rely on her for financial support. Katie’s hands are “worn” from the soda and lye that she uses to wash floors. There are moments in which she feels that she has lost her attractiveness, but her feeling of wanting to be desirable again is briefly reignited when she encounters Sergeant Michael McShane at Mattie Mahoney’s picnic.
With age, Katie grows into a harder woman. Though she tires of working so much, she also worries about her children growing up and needing her less, particularly Neeley, for whom she has tenderer feelings. However, Katie is fiercely protective of both of her children and, when Francie is attacked by the child molester who has been terrorizing their neighborhood, it is Katie who shoots him between the legs with the gun that Johnny borrows from his friend, Burt.
The family endures another shock when Johnny dies at the age of thirty-four from pneumonia and complications brought on by acute alcoholism. Katie is pregnant at the time of his death with their third child, Annie Laurie. Katie is not the only one to add an additional member to the family. After delivering ten stillborn children, Aunt Sissy adopts a baby girl from Lucia, a neighborhood girl who is the daughter of Sicilian immigrants. Sissy names the girl Sarah. Soon thereafter, Sissy successfully delivers a healthy baby boy, whom she names Stephen Aaron.
The addition of Annie Laurie, whom the Nolans call Laurie, requires Francie to work more because she is the eldest. Francie’s first steady, well-paying job is at the Model Press Clipping Bureau where she works as a file clerk, a job that requires her to read newspapers. Having found a job where she can fulfill her love of reading, she excels and gets promoted to fill the position of city reader.
During the First World War, Francie gets laid off from this job and becomes a teletype operator. She also enrolls in college courses, though she has not yet graduated from high school. While buying her textbooks, she meets the handsome and ambitious Ben Blake, who helps her with her studies. Not long after, she also meets Lee Rhynor through a co-worker. Francie thinks that she has fallen in love with the boy with the “shy smile.” Lee breaks Francie’s heart, however, when she finds out, through a letter from his wife, that he lied about wanting to marry Francie after returning from his tour of duty in France.
Though Francie resumes her relationship with Ben, she retains her desire for Lee. Meanwhile, Sergeant McShane re-enters the family’s life not long after his wife finally dies after years of suffering from tuberculosis. He announces his wish to court Katie, with the intention of marrying her in the fall. Francie and Neeley approve. Though he makes it clear that he never wishes to replace Johnny, he insists on adopting Laurie and giving her his name, so that she can know what it is to have a father.
Francie notices how Neeley has grown up to look identical to Johnny and, like his father, takes on a career in music, working as a singer and piano player. Francie is now eighteen and plans to attend the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. On the eve of her departure to the Midwest, she makes a date with Ben. As she prepares for it, she sees little Florry Wendy watching her from the fire escape of the building across the yard. When Francie was Florry’s age, she, too, would sit and watch young women prepare for their dates. She looks down into the yard and sees that the tree of her youth, which was cut down to make room for wash lines, has proceeded to grow back from the stump. Wistfully, Francie shuts the window looking out on to the yard and says “goodbye” to her younger self.