Francie Nolan grows up in the tenements of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York in the early years of the 20th Century. The granddaughter of German and Irish immigrants, Francie and her younger brother Neeley (real name Cornelius) grow up dirt poor, but thankfully don’t really realise it until they get older. Their mother, Katie, works hard as a janitress to make sure they have a place to stay and food on the table. Their father, Johnny, is handsome and charming, a gifted singer, and a drunk. He works as a singing waiter when he can, but is too unreliable to hold down a steady job. Francie and Neeley help out as best they can, collecting junk and selling it for pennies.
The daughter and sister of women who never even learned how to read and write, Katie Nolan values education above all, and is determined that both of her children are going to get educated, whatever the cost. Even before the children are literate themselves, she reads them a page from the Bible and from the collected works of Shakespeare. Francie is quiet and bookish and loves the local library, determined to read her way through every book on the shelves, from A to Z. She reads a book a day and does well in school, so well that the family lie about her address so she can go to a better school in a more prosperous part of town.
Francie works hard to do well in school, but has to get a job rather than go to high school, or her family can’t manage. She doesn’t give up on her dream of going to college eventually, though, and through perseverance and determination, slowly manages to achieve her goals.
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