Summary and Analysis
Book 4: Chapters 27–29
Chapter 27: One Christmas the children go to a tree lot, where at midnight, the tree lot owner will throw the leftover trees into the crowd. If the person who catches the tree can remain standing, he or she can keep the tree. Francie and Neeley are determined to catch a tree. The man throws the first tree, which is always the largest tree left on the lot. For a moment, the tree lot owner feels a twinge of guilt over throwing such a large tree to the children, but then he reasons that if he simply gives it to them, everyone will expect the same treatment. The man throws the tree, and the children do catch it. As the children are dragging the tree up the steps to their apartment, Katie's thoughts are filled with the hope that her children will be able to escape their parent's poverty. Katie understands that the best way for the children to escape their poverty is through education.
On Christmas Day, the family exchanges gifts. Katie makes a huge fuss over Neeley's gift, calling it the best gift she has ever received, and Francie is hurt that her mother paid little attention to the gift received from her daughter. Later, the children are able to attend a Christmas party for poor children. The organizers are giving away a doll to a little girl, whose name is Mary. Francie claims that her name is Mary, and she receives the doll. As she returns to her seat, other children call her a beggar. Francie feels guilty about the lie, but then discovers that her full name is Mary Francis Nolan.
Chapter 28: Francie becomes more aware of what people think about her father's drinking, and she realizes that her mother is not always right about everything. Francie is less able to be distracted from her hunger and the family's poverty. Francie thinks about becoming a playwright so that she can write plays about real situations and people.
Chapter 29: Johnny decides that the children should see the ocean and takes them fishing. Johnny and the children spend several hours in the boat and the children end up with sunburns. He feeds them a huge lunch, which makes them sick. Johnny was forced to buy some fish, since he did not catch any, but he buys rotten fish. When they arrive home, Katie is angry and tells Johnny that he is not fit to be a father.
As Francie grows up, she becomes more aware that life can be very disappointing. She has already learned that one school did not live up to her expectations, but now she has further evidence that the world can be a cruel place. Catching the Christmas tree was not as easy as she had expected, and her mother's disproportionate love of Neeley's Christmas gift is further evidence that life is not fair. Although she is able to claim the doll at the Christmas party, she also understands that this was another effort to provide charity to the poor. Francie realizes that the people who created the charity event and who provided the doll to be given away are helping poor children only to make themselves look good. They do not just give to the poor; they gloat over their giving and make the children feel worse about being poor.
The narrator's choice to show the reader the tree lot owner's thoughts provides a glimpse into the man's concerns about the children, who have claimed the largest tree on the lot. He realizes they can be hurt, but he cannot back down and simply give them the tree. He does not wish them to be hurt but also understands that it is a rough world and sometimes people get hurt. The children might as well learn that the world is tough. Katie's thoughts also offer some insight into how she feels about Francie and why she treats her the way she does. Francie's choice to attend school away from the neighborhood is interpreted by Katie as an effort by Francie to pull away from her mother. In some way, Katie feels as if Francie has rejected her. Katie acknowledges that Francie is smart and driven and that she will succeed in escaping the poverty of her upbringing. Katie also thinks that Neeley can become a doctor and escape being poor, but that he will need her help.
As Francie grows up, she actually becomes more like her mother. She puts away the romanticism of her father and, indeed, recognizes what his drinking costs the family. She becomes pragmatic and more of a realist than her mother has been since Francie was born. Francie wants to rewrite the plays she sees at the theater because she realizes that the heroines in the plays should make practical choices for survival and not romantic choices, which will fade under hardship. The fishing trip serves as ample evidence to Francie of her father's romantic nature, which only leads to disaster. A song he knows tells of the romance of the sea; taking the children to the ocean to fish was another of his romantic dreams. Johnny has always been a dreamer, but now Francie is old enough to see that her father's dreams are not practical.