Summary and Analysis
Book 5: Chapters 49–51
Chapter 49: Francie loves college. A boy that she met in the bookstore, Ben Blake, helps her acclimate to her classes. He is only a senior in high school, but this is his third summer taking college courses. Ben helps Francie study for her final exam in French, which she passes. When the summer classes end, Ben tells Francie to write if she needs him. The end of her summer college courses once again leaves Francie with lonely evenings to fill.
Chapter 50: Sissy has decided that a Jewish doctor will deliver her baby in a hospital. This news creates much consternation. No Rommely woman has ever had a man deliver her baby. No Rommely woman has ever had a baby in a hospital, but Sissy is confident that a Jewish doctor is a better doctor than a Christian doctor, and she will not be dissuaded. When the baby is born, Sissy has a moment of doubt when she sees the baby lying quietly on the table. His skin is blue, but then the doctor calls for oxygen and suddenly the baby is fine.
Now that the country is at war, Uncle Willie tries to enlist but is turned down. Willie buys a drum and cymbals and tries to teach himself to play music. He attaches a guitar and a harmonica and begins practicing to be a one-man band, but in his heart, Willie still thinks of himself as a failure.
Chapter 51: Francie begins to study for the college entrance exam, since the only way she can enroll in college for regular classes is to pass the exam. Mary Rommely is dying, and Neeley is dating a girl described as wild. Katie asks the children to forgo Christmas gifts and use the money to buy food for the Tynmore sisters, who are now too old to work.
Ben Blake is the first young man to earn Francie's attention. She is old enough to be interested in young men, and her loneliness in previous chapters has set up the reader to expect her to fall for Ben. He is destined for success. He has his future mapped out, including college and law school, and he is still only a senior in high school. Ben offers Francie good, practical advice on how to study for her tests and how to succeed in school. When their summer college courses end, Francie is even lonelier than before she enrolled in college. Her classes and Ben's presence had filled her time, but now she is once again very alone.
Sissy's new baby suggests that the world is changing, just as the brief conversations of Chapter 41 had foretold. The technology that the men feared would make them useless has, instead, saved the baby's life. In the past, women gave birth with other women in attendance. Men were not participants. But with Sissy's baby, a man is present who saves her baby's life. Moreover, he is a Jewish doctor. When Evy remarks that Jewish women do not ask Christian doctors to deliver their babies, Sissy's response is to ask why should they want a Christian doctor, since Jewish doctors are so much better than Christian doctors. The prejudice against Jews that was evident in the book's opening chapters, when a boy told Neeley that the Jews killed Jesus, has not gone away completely, but Sissy's actions have helped to breach the intolerances of the past.
Uncle Willie's behavior when he is turned down for enlistment is a reminder that many of the men in the Rommely women's lives are not as strong as the Rommely women, who never succumb to despair, no matter how difficult their lives. Willie is a reminder of Johnny, whose own failures eventually led to his death. Willie's descent should remind readers of Johnny's failures, while suggesting that Willie's role in Evy's life may soon come to an end.