Growing up, James is “lost in the sauce,” unremarkable compared to his eleven siblings. He loves his brothers and sisters, but because there are so many of them and their family is relatively poor, they often fight over food. Ruth cannot cook, because she has neither the time nor the talent, so she brings home food from the work cafeteria and her children scrounge what they can. James’ house is messy, a “combination three-ring circus and zoo,” with pets rotating in and out. Ruth rules the household, but only oversees the most important problems (flooding, injury) and academics.
Although Ruth grew up in a well-ordered house where she always had enough to eat, she was unhappy and felt unloved. In contrast, the household she creates for her children is disordered, and her offspring are frequently hungry, but they’re happy and loving. Ruth creates a family that is the opposite of the one that raised her—for her, a sense of belonging and togetherness is more important than material goods.
Dennis, James’s oldest sibling, is held up as an example for the rest of the children to aspire to. He was an artist and had finished college, and now he is going to be a doctor. James knows Dennis spends much of his time as a civil rights activist, but Ruth doesn’t mind, as long as it doesn’t affect his performance in medical school.
As always, Ruth is primarily interested in her children’s scholastic and religious achievements. Although race is important to her children, she has no interest in engaging with them about it.
James’s second oldest sister is Helen. She’s artistic and well liked by the neighborhood boys. Although she was once an A student and the pianist in the church choir, at age fifteen Helen drops out of school to become a hippie and stage a “revolution against the white man.” Ruth is furious, and repeatedly disciplines Helen, but her mind remains unchanged. After a fight with her sister, Rosetta, Helen runs away from home, and even when Ruth promises to forgive her for everything, Helen will not return.
Ruth only becomes involved in her children’s affairs when she worries that their academics or their relationship with God are at risk. In this case, Helen seems poised to drop out of favor scholastically and spiritually. This is one of the few times Ruth engages with her children over an issue of race. Although Ruth does not acknowledge it as a racial issue, Helen’s rebellion is tied to her burgeoning black pride.
Helen stays at her half-sister Jack’s house for a little while (her father’s daughter from a previous relationship), before disappearing for months.
Jack is an example of the McBride-Jordan’s extended family. Although she’s only a half sibling to the McBride children, she treats all of Ruth’s children as her blood relatives, and is happy to help them in times of need.
Months later, Jack calls Ruth and says she’s found Helen. Helen is living in a housing project in Upper Manhattan. Ruth immediately travels to Helen’s new home, which turns out to be a run-down housing project. Ruth makes it into the apartment, up to the eighth floor, down the hallway and to the door, but although Helen looks out at her through the peephole she will not open the door to talk. Ruth promises to forget the fights and months of silence if Helen just comes back home, but her daughter does not respond.
Just as Ruth once needed to escape her oppressive family, Helen has felt the need to escape her own. Although the two women had very different childhoods, Helen decided that her birth family was not providing her what she needed. In this moment Ruth also reveals the most important aspect of family life. Although she’s made it clear that her priorities for her children are academic excellence and law abiding behavior, in the end what she wants most is for her family to stick together.