I was really excited to finally read this book. Up until this point, I had heard a lot about it and that it was a staple of modern literature, and was delighted to get the chance to delve into it. What I found surprised me, for although this was a story of triumph, it was bitterly sad and overwhelming at times, and I struggled with many emotions as I read my way through.
Francie is a typical girl living in a bleak world. Though she does her best to have a bright outlook on life, she struggles with her situation and the restrictions it places on her. She is a stellar student, but because she is poor, she gets very short shrift from her teachers and is constantly having to make do with less of an education than other, more affluent girls of her age. She is a solitary child who is constantly bullied and harassed by others her age, and it’s really only her brother who provides most of her companionship. Francie goes through life feeling the anxieties of a poor girl and wonders whether or not she will turn out like all the other people she sees living in the tenements and struggling along day to day. She collects junk from the gutters with the other children in her neighborhood, hoping to sell it to the junk man for a few pennies to buy a frivolity, a sad indulgence that she comes to depend on.
I was really surprised to see just how little money the family survived on. Between her mother's work and the occasional odd job that her father picked up, Francie's family seemed to have to do more scrimping than the other families in her neighborhood, and most times they left the table hungry. Smith takes the time to give the details about the family’s finances, recording just how much money Katie brings in each week and how much even tiny expenditures are costing them. In one part of the book, Francie relates all the meals that her mother makes for them with week old, stale bread. There is a bread loaf (much like a meatloaf, made with ketchup, bread and egg) and fried bread, and bread pudding, along with plain slices of bread with butter. Meat is a rarity in their household, and they’re much more likely to get a bone picked almost clean for a pot of soup than an actual piece of meat. I marveled at the ingenuity of the family's use of the bread, but it also made me sad and disheartened. The children were often described as hollow-eyed and gangly, no doubt because of the food restrictions they were made to endure.
The relationship between young Francie and her father was sad as well. Johnny never wanted a family (a fact that he never hides from Francie) and he’s slowly drinking himself into an early grave. Though Francie loves her father with all of her heart, she can never be truly proud of him because she too often sees him stumbling home after a night of drinking, and the work that he cannot seem to get has to be done by her forever suffering mother. Katie puts up with Johnny's selfish and slovenly behavior with a no nonsense attitude, but the hard work and worry wear her down to a coarse nub over time. As Francie observes, her mother's gay attitude dissolves away into one of bitter supplication and acceptance. I was a little mad that Katie was forever forgiving Johnny his excesses. I felt that she should have put her foot down many times, but I also understand that at the time, a woman's life and prospects were far different than they are today. It was just very wearying to read about at times. No matter what the family tried to do to improve their lot, some unseen hand kept coming down to crush their dreams.
Though I admired Katie at times for her persistence, I found it maddening that she harbored favoritism in her heart for her youngest son. She tried valiantly to keep this revelation from Francie, but the girl was very bright and it was easy for her to see it anyway. Often while I was reading, I wept internally for Francie, for I felt that she was unloved and always put upon. She didn't dwell on it, but it was plain to her as the nose on her face that she was not the favored child, and that no matter how she tried to love her mother, she would never gain that position. She was hit with prejudice from all sides in her life, and it was horrible to see that it extended itself towards her, even in her own household. Though she tried, she was never able to be a carefree little girl because the pressures of life were weighing her down. It was eye-opening to see the way in which the poor struggled in this story. They were constantly maligned by the more affluent and even took it upon themselves to form little groups of prejudice and hatred. They were scorned by others and by themselves, and theirs was a society plagued by bullying, rumors and contempt. In one section of the book, Francie is castigated by her teacher for writing true stories about her life. The teacher tells Francie her stories are filled with ugliness and makes her promise only to write about beautiful things, things that Francie knows nothing about. Her teacher makes her feel despondent and alienated, much like the other more fortunate people in her life do. With a broken spirit, Francie complies with her teacher's wishes, only to begin fabricating stories of deceit and grandeur.
As I was reading, I came to see that this period of time was simpler, yet more difficult. The people that lived during these times seemed almost innocent but were faced with such extreme hardship and prejudice that it would be wrong to assume that their lives were less complicated than ours are today. There was a sense of community in the book that doesn't seem to exist today, but there was a niggling sense of failure that permeated the lives of the characters as well. Many of the situations in this book were heartrending and sad, and there seemed only to be brief joy in the characters’ striving. It seemed like a very hard time in which to live, let alone thrive. Though I did enjoy this book, it was not what I had been expecting at all. It was a very finely crafted and engaging story and had a wonderful narrator in Francie, but it was also bleak and at times very dark. I was glad to see Francie finally get out of the cycle of poverty that ate up everyone around her, and since reading the book, have often let my mind journey into speculation about her future. I think that readers who haven’t experienced this piece of Americana would get a lot out of this book, and though it gave me a heavy heart, I do recommend it. I would love to hear the opinions of others who have read this book because I'd be interested to hear other reactions to it. This is not a book to be missed, but be aware that it is at times emotionally heavy.