The narrator was a single mother during the Great Depression (1929–39), a time in American History characterized by economic depression and poverty for millions of Americans. The narrator reflects with guilt about her parenting choices and the circumstances that contributed to the struggles her daughter Emily faces in school and social settings.
Emily is a young woman who has struggled to find her talents and where she fits in. Emily's childhood was characterized by illness, loneliness, and separation from her family. She struggles with confidence and affection but discovers that she has a talent for comedy and performance.
Susan is Emily's younger sister and the opposite of Emily. She has a cherubic face with blonde curly hair. Susan is not shy as a child and likes to retell Emily's jokes and riddles for attention. As a preteen Susan looks older and more mature than Emily despite being the younger sibling.