Rufus Follet, a six-year-old who loves his father and mother but is otherwise fearful about the world of grown-ups. That world is a confusing place where older children ridicule his name (his mother tells him it is a fine old name), adults often use words he does not understand, and his beloved father dies suddenly in a car accident. Rufus compensates for his fears by bullying his little sister. It is a mark of his intelligence that he sometimes understands his motives and usually feels remorseful for tyrannizing her.
Jay Follet, the young husband and father who is killed as he returns home from the bedside of his own mortally ill father. Jay loves his wife, for whom he does many kindnesses, and his children, but he resents his drunken brother Ralph’s weak reliance on him for emotional support. Jay had been a heavy drinker in the past but for the sake of his wife left that behind. A family friend tells Rufus that his father grew up in poverty and against hard odds but turned out to be a man of great kindness and generosity. The priest who conducts the funeral nevertheless notes that Jay was never baptized and thus is not entitled to the full burial rites of the church.
Mary Follet, Jay’s young wife, loving, pious, and naïve. She must begin to face the demands that her new status as widow will place on her. During the few days between her husband’s death and the funeral, Mary leans heavily on her family and her faith as a devout Roman Catholic, but she also exhibits her own strength of character at crucial times. She asks her Aunt Hannah Lynch to spend the first night of her widowhood with her instead of asking her mother, whose deafness makes conversation nearly impossible. She refuses to let Ralph Follet, an undertaker, supervise the funeral, knowing that Ralph’s drinking would surely cause problems. Although she has a tendency toward prissiness and sometimes offers simplistic solutions to Rufus’ problems, she also can call on a psychological toughness that—with the help of her loving family—will see her through the difficult future.
Hannah Lynch, Mary Follet’s aunt, her mother’s unmarried sister. She is direct, intelligent, and devoted to her niece and the Follet family. Before Jay’s death, she takes Rufus shopping for a cap, knowing that his mother considers him too young for this item of grown-up headgear, even though Rufus desperately longs for it. Even before the news of Jay’s death is confirmed, she guesses the seriousness of the accident and exhibits her customary sensitivity and restraint as she waits with Mary for the worst to be confirmed, knowing instinctively that Mary must come to understand the loss in her own way.
Ralph Follet, Jay’s alcoholic brother, weak and self-pitying. Ralph’s rivalry with his brother for their mother’s affections extends back into childhood. In a few moments of honesty, however, he recognizes the pain that his drinking and womanizing cause his mother and his wife, Sally. He acknowledges that they truly love him despite his weaknesses.
Andrew Lynch, Mary Follet’s brother, a skeptic who loves his sister even though he doubts the value of her faith. After the funeral, he invites Rufus for a walk, during which he confesses to the boy his rage at what he considers to be the priest’s smug dismissal of Jay Follet’s worth.
Walter Starr, a simple but sensitive family friend of the Lynches. He goes with Andrew to bring Jay’s body home. The children spend the time of the funeral with him. During that time, he gently chastises Rufus for bullying his little sister and makes sure that the children have a chance to watch the funeral procession. He tells Rufus that his father was like Abraham Lincoln.
Catherine Follet, Rufus’ little sister, four years old. She is almost overwhelmed by the mystery and upheaval brought about by events she cannot understand.
List of Characters
(The entire section is 2,790 words.)