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The entire novel revolves around Francie and tells her life story from the time she is a small girl until she has matured into a lovely, bright young woman heading off to college. Although her youth has been spent in poverty in the shabby neighborhood of Williamsburg, she has been blessed with a loving family and a good education.
Francie's life is difficult. Her father, whom she dearly loves, is an alcoholic and dies when Francie is young. Her mother, who must work very hard to make ends meet, is not a cheerful person. She often criticizes Francie, always expecting more from her daughter. Francie knows that Katie loves her younger brother better; she accepts the favoritism, even though she does not like it. When Katie allows Neeley to go on to high school and makes her work at a job, Francie finally grows very angry over the unfair treatment she receives; however, when Katie tells her daughter that she expects her to understand, Francie feels very guilty.
Amazingly, Francie bears no real grudges against Neeley, her younger brother who is Katie's favorite. Because of their poverty, they have always been very close. As children, they would gather junk together and sell it in order to have a few pennies of their own. When their father dies, they can only share their sorrow with each other. They also both take a job at McGarrity's saloon to help support the family. Francie does resent, however, that her mother praises Neeley for his mediocre grades, while she chastises her for making only one C. She is also saddened that Katie chooses to go to Neeley's graduation rather than her own. Finally, she most resents that Katie insists that Neeley continue in school, even though he would strongly prefer to work rather than pursuing his education. Francie never blames Neeley for the special way he is treated. Instead, she loves him dearly and cries when it is time for her to go to college and leave him.
Francie's Aunt Sissy is a support to her throughout the novel. She comes to Francie's rescue at school when there is a problem with her going to the bathroom. After Johnny dies and Francie is lonely and miserable, Sissy comes to comfort her. She also arrives when Katie is in labor and makes sure that Francie is out of the house during the delivery. Sissy is also the one that attends her graduation and buys her flowers, saying they are from Johnny.
Francie's first experience in love brings her a lot of heartache. She falls for Lee, a young man who is only in town for a few days; but he manages to sweep her off her feet, giving Francie her first kiss. Before he departs, he pledges his love to Francie and makes her promise to write him every day. Francie is devastated when she learns that he married as soon as he returned home. Fortunately, Ben is a much kinder person. Francie meets him in the summer when she is taking classes at the local college. Ben, a nice, bright, young man, helps Francie with her lessons. Later, he helps her study for the entrance examination, which she passes in order to attend college as a permanent student. Ben pledges his devotion to Francie and gives her a ring; but he insists that they wait five years, while Francie is in college, to make a decision about their future.
Francie proves herself to be a wise and remarkable young woman. She is a constant source of strength and support to Katie, even though she does not always deserve it. She bears no resentment to Neeley, even though he is constantly treated with favoritism. She takes the setbacks in life, like losing her father and not being able to go to high school, in a mature manner. Even when groping through the clutches of adolescence, Francie manages to retain her self-dignity and bearing. In the end, she emerges as a polished young lady who is sure to succeed in life because of her determination and internal strength.