Part 1 Summary
The Friends describes a transitional period in the life of Phyllisia Cathay as she learns about herself, as well as the responsibilities involved in both family life and friendship. As the novel opens, Phyllisia, the first-person narrator, is sitting in her classroom contemplating her dislike for Edith Jackson, a poorly dressed classmate who is determined to become her friend. When Edith enters the room, typically late, she is mocked by Miss Lass, the teacher. Edith simply disregards the snub, trying instead to speak to Phyllisia, who ignores her.
Phyllisia, who has recently moved from the West Indies to Harlem, feels lost and unhappy. The other children constantly mock her and call her names. They dislike her accent, her intelligence, and her willingness to respond in class. Their hostility culminates in a fight between Phyllisia and Beulah, a much larger and tougher classmate. Phyllisia astonishes everyone (including herself) by butting Beulah with her head, which enables her to escape. Running home, she feels even more alone since no one, child or adult, had tried to help her. She contrasts this with her previous life on the island where "everybody cared about everything.'' When her mother, Ramona, questions Phyllisia about her disheveled appearance, she learns that both Phyllisia and her sister, Ruby, have had problems at school because they are seen as outsiders.
That evening, Calvin Cathay, Phyllisia's father, brings two strangers home, Cousin Frank and Mr. Charles. Introducing the men to his family, he hugs Phyllisia, then heartlessly dismisses her as ugly. This makes Phyllisia feel even more isolated, the ugly duckling in a handsome family.
The next day, when Phyllisia walks into the classroom the students boo her, while Beulah enters to cheers. Miss Lass refuses any assistance; Edith, however, warns that no one should pick on her best friend, Phyllisia. Astonishingly, Phyllisia feels the hostility of the students dissipate. Initially, she is grateful, but this soon turns to anger because she doesn't want to be linked in any way to this dirty and disheveled girl.
Although Phyllisia had been looking forward to warmer weather, the summer bring several disturbances. Gradually, Phyllisia becomes aware that her mother is very ill. As the heat mounts, tension in the neighborhood escalates and the newspapers predict a "long, hot summer'' where the cities will explode in riots. Even in the classroom, the heat affects everyone. Miss Lass eventually explodes into a virulent racist attack on her students, driving Phyllisia from the room. Edith follows her and the two girls explore New York City. For the first time, Phyllisia enjoys Edith's company. However, when she witnesses Edith stealing, it brings back her dislike. When they return to Harlem, Phyllisia is determined to abandon Edith and find her own way home, in spite of the fact that Edith has warned her that there will be trouble soon. Just as Phyllisia turns to escape, the police charge the crowd. Edith again saves Phyllisia, pulling her out of the melee. As the two girls flee, Phyllisia glances back and sees Calvin struggling with a mounted policeman.
The girls run to Edith's apartment where Phyllisia meets the Jackson family. Phyllisia notices that Edith suddenly seems older under the weight of the responsibly of caring for her four younger sisters. When she returns home, Calvin is angry with her, not for being in the riot but for associating with Edith. He warns her never to socialize with any "ragamuffins" again.
Part 2 Summary
The section opens in Central Park where Phyllisia is picnicking with Edith and her sisters. Although she knows it is cruel, Phyllisia is bragging about the elegant new clothes that she'll be wearing to high school. Edith shifts the subject, asking about Phyllisia's mother and criticizing Calvin for not treating Phyllisia fairly. When they are about to leave, Edith picks some flowers for Phyllisia's mother. Ramona, who is delighted to learn that her daughter has a...
(The entire section is 1,356 words.)