Meet Francie Nolan. She is eleven years old in 1912, living in a very poor section of Brooklyn called Williamsburg. But hold on, this is no gloomy tale of the hardships of poverty—in fact, the first sentence of the novel lets us know that Francie is a pretty upbeat person. To her, Williamsburg is serene, especially on easy breezy Saturdays in the summer.
One of the first things the narrator writes about is the “Tree of Heaven,” a really tough tree that can grow in terrible conditions, even out of cement. One of these trees is growing in the yard behind Francie’s tenement apartment building. Its leaves surround her fire escape, and she loves to sit out there and feel like she is living in a tree. So right away, Francie and this tree are connected, see? Can we expect her to be one tough mama, like the tree? Maybe.
The novel is divided into five different books.
In Book One, we go with Francie from place to place on a serene Saturday. Even though nothing extraordinary happens on this day, we learn a ton about her, her family, and the culture she lives in. We meet Mama, Papa, a couple aunts, and walk through the streets with her.
Francie spends the day:
And there you have it, folks—A typical serene Saturday in the summer.
Book Two flashes back twelve years to when Johnny and Katie first meet and brings us up to when Francie is six years old. Here we get lot of background scoop about both sides of the family and how they influence who Francie is.
As newlyweds, Katie and Johnny have a blissful first year, but things get tough soon enough. Our Francie has a tough first year, and many people don’t think she will live for very long because she is so small and sickly. Then Papa loses his job, and Mama is pregnant again by the time Francie is three months old. Yikes.
The Nolans move a couple times because of scandals and embarrassments caused by Papa’s drinking and Aunt Sissy’s behavior. They have no money to afford a new place, but that doesn’t stop Mama. She finds a place where she can work as the janitress in exchange for paying rent because she knows that she can’t depend on Johnny. He spends a lot of time drinking these days.
Book Three, the lengthiest book, follows Francie’s life till she is fourteen years old. We learn a lot about Francie’s start in school, which is nothing close to the magical land where she gets to clap the teacher’s erasers outside like she expected.
Instead, school is an overcrowded and mean place where the wealthier students are obviously preferred by their teachers. And thanks to Mama’s fear of sickness, Francie has no chance of making any friends—the girl reeks from getting her hair combed with kerosene and wearing a garlic necklace to ward off various ailments.
When Francie is thirteen, a sexual predator lurks in the shadows of Williamsburg. Several girls are molested, and one is even murdered on her same block. Just when things start to calm down, the predator strikes again. This time, his victim is Francie.
Soon after this, things go downhill fast for Papa. In an attempt to sober up, he dies from pneumonia and alcoholism. It seems like all hope is lost, and Francie will have to drop out of school to work, but then Johnny saves the day. McGarrity, a saloon owner who misses Johnny, wants the kids to work for a few hours after school each day. This extra money helps them through the birth of the littlest Nolan, Annie Laurie.
Book Four focuses on Francie’s working life. In just the few months after graduating from grade school she worked in an artificial flower factory, was laid off, and found a new job at a clipping bureau as a reader. As September approaches, Mama decides only Neeley can go to high school this year. Francie is mad, but she has a plan—she is determined to study for an admissions test to bypass the high school requirement altogether.
Katie gets a marriage proposal from Sergeant McShane. This is a very good break for them all, as he is financially able to take care of Katie and her children. He wants to pay for them all to go to college and wants to adopt Laurie.
At the start of the fall, Mama gets married, and Francie, who passes her entrance exam, is off to start at the University of Michigan. The boy from the summer college classes, Ben, gives Francie a promise ring. He wants to marry her in five years. She is not so sure. Maybe she will, but she has a while to think about it. She looks out the window as she prepares for her date with him and notices that her favorite tree that was cut down has started to grow a new tree from its stump. She also notices a little girl watching her get ready just like she used to do when she was little. She whispers “Good-bye, Francie” and closes the window (56.152).