Francie is an observant, bookish girl. The novel follows her from birth to 16 in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, where she lives with her mother, Katie, father, Johnny, and younger brother, Neeley (Cornelius). Eventually, after Johnny dies, a little sister, Annie Laurie, arrives. During that time, she endures the grinding hardship of poverty and her father's alcoholism, but, like her mother, she is resilient. In addition, her youth allows her to be somewhat unaware of her difficult circumstances, but this also makes her dawning realizations that much more agonizing. Francie is also very close to her brother, and she loves her father dearly, despite the financial and emotional difficulties he creates. The detailed accounts of events, places, and people in Francie's life, along with Francie's own emotional and intellectual development, encourage the reader to think of her as a complicated individual. Consequently, Francie's story cannot be reduced to a simple coming-of-age tale. It is this, but much more. This is partly because Francie represents, in many ways, the story of the American experience. Moreover, like the tree that symbolizes Francie and her neighborhood, the novel presents a character who is fully human. Francie is sentimental and feels deeply, like her father, but is also resolute and hardworking, like her mother. She makes mistakes—she'll tell a lie or two, and she falls for the wrong guy—but she is also heroic at times, as when, at only seven years old, she stands up to the doctor who insults her and her family. And although she is strong, like her mother, she still yearns for love and support. This she finds in her Aunt Sissy; her mother not only prefers Neeley, but also thinks Francie stands just fine on her own two feet.
Katie Nolan is married to the love of her life, Johnny Nolan. She soon learns that he isn't made of the same stuff she is—he's charming and talented, but weak—but she accepts it. Indeed, she never seems to doubt their union, even when his drinking makes their hardships worse. Even after Johnny dies of alcoholism, she refuses to sully his name in private or public. She is the family's breadwinner and caretaker, and she assumes both mantles as a matter of course, without complaint. That's probably because Katie comes from a family of strong Austrian women. This is, perhaps, the greatest gift she passes on to her daughter Francie. Despite the fact that Francie is born fragile and sickly, Katie never worries about her girl. In fact, she knows she loves her second child Neeley more than Francie. This is partly because Neeley is so robust when he's born, but also, paradoxically, because her daughter is strong and doesn't need so much love and support. This causes Francie hurt that Katie doesn't notice, but for all that, she is deeply devoted to her daughter, whom she wants, and expects, to succeed.
Johnny Nolan is handsome and charming. A singing waiter proud of his membership in the Waiters Union, Johnny is something of a dreamer. The only problem is that his dreams seem never to come true. He either doesn't know how to go about making them reality, or is too weak—like the rest of the Nolan clan—to try. Even with a lively, pretty wife who takes care of the family, and two capable young children, Johnny can't stay away from the drink—or perhaps this support enables him. He spends all his tips (and then some) at McGarrity's saloon, where he drinks himself sick.
Sissy Rommely is arguably the most charismatic of the Rommely sisters. Although she was never sent to school, and so cannot read or write, she is smart, ingenious, and resourceful. She is also emotionally open and sexually unabashed, so although she is clearly a rule-breaker and has a "reputation," people love her. She is kind and generous, and fiercely devoted to Katie's children, especially Francie. Apparently unable to have children of her own—she has endured ten stillbirths—Sissy showers those around her with love, mothering Francie and Katie in ways that Francie, in particular, craves. Sissy takes many lovers, but eventually meets Steve, who is devoted to her, and she to him.
Neeley is Francie Nolan's younger brother. Born a year after his sister, Neeley experiences many of the same hardships as Francie. As he grows, he increasingly resembles his father, Johnny Nolan, both in appearance and singing talent. He is unlike Francie, in that he does not have her insatiable desire to learn. He does, however, like most every other kid in his neighborhood, want to make money.
Evy is one of the Rommely sisters. Like them, she is practical and hardworking. Unfortunately, she is married to Willie Flittman, who is not only cruel to Drummer, the horse who pulls his milk delivery wagon, but also endlessly complains about being a failure. She is full of good humor, however, regaling her family with pitch-perfect imitations of her husband.