Plot: Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner), an imaginative and sensitive girl, lives with her family in a Brooklyn tenement. She adores her father, Johnny (James Dunn), a dreamer with a drinking problem, and respects but resents her down-to-earth mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire). The family struggles to rise from poverty. Francie and her brother must each read a page aloud each night from the Bible and Shakespeare, and their parents are intent on their becoming the first family members to graduate from grade school. Francie dreams of going to a better school in a wealthier neighborhood, and her father makes it possible by telling the principal that she is moving in with a fictitious wealthy aunt. A teacher there encourages her to pursue her love of writing. But Katie is pregnant again, and decides that Francie should leave school. When Johnny dies, Francie is devastated. She is angry with her mother, feeling that her mother did not love Johnny enough, and does not love her enough either. But when her mother has the baby, Francie sees that she loves them both, and that Katie hates having to be practical and “hard.” A kind policeman asks permission to court Katie, and Francie knows that their life will be easier, and that her father and what they shared will be with her always.
Discussion: This family has a great deal of love but a lot of difficulty showing it. Although they clearly love each other, Johnny and Katie have too many shattered expectations to accept tenderness from each other, as we see when he comes home with the food from the party and sees her with her hair down, and when she tries to tell him how much she likes hearing him sing “Annie Laurie.”
They have trouble being honest and direct about their circumstances and their feelings. They have to move to a cheaper apartment, but insist — to themselves and to everyone else — that they are doing it to get more sunlight. When Katie decides that she wants her sister back in her life, she sends the message via the insurance collector. When Francie tries raising the subject of the school she wants to attend in a roundabout way, Katie tells her to speak more directly. But Johnny lets her tell him in her own way, and, over Katie’s objections, makes it possible for her dream to come true. Francie has a hard time understanding that Katie loves her and relies on her, until Katie is in labor and almost does not know what she is saying. This is a good opportunity to talk about the ways that families do (and do not) communicate with each other. Older kids may also want to discuss the impact that Johnny’s drinking and unreliability had on Katie and why it was different for Francie.
Questions for Kids:
· What does the title refer to?
· What did Francie’s teacher mean about the difference between imagination and pipe dreams?
· Why did the members of the family have such a hard time talking to each other about what mattered to them?
· Why does the family use the word “sick” to describe Johnny’s alcoholism? Why does Johnny seem so sad when Francie talks with him about being “sick”?
· Why was it so important to Kate that the death certificate be changed?
Connections: James Dunn won an Oscar for his performance. Joan Blondell appeared as a brassy second lead in a number of early musicals, including “Footlight Parade” and “Gold Diggers of 1933.” Peggy Ann Garner is also lovely as the young “Jane Eyre.”
Activities: Kids should read the book, by Betty Smith, who based it on her own childhood.