The Girl, the unnamed narrator, daughter of poor, rural Minnesotans. She makes her way to the twin cities, “Sodom and Gomorrah,” as her mother calls them, and finds work in a speakeasy called the German Village. There, she falls in love with Butch. They become involved in a bank robbery that results in Butch’s death. The Girl, who is pregnant, returns to her women friends who live in a warehouse in St. Paul and help each other through collectives and by pooling their resources. She gives birth to a daughter.
Clara, a prostitute. Frail and loving, she befriends the Girl, who is unacquainted with the city. Clara is full of hope and imparts optimism to the Girl as they walk the bitter winter streets of St. Paul. Ironically, Clara, who knows the streets, is a dreamer of dreams derived from magazines or films, and all the time she is showing the Girl how to survive, she is dying. She dies as the Girl gives birth to a daughter named Clara.
Butch, a man with a dream. He wants to own a gas station, and he wants to love the Girl and to have a family. All of his dreams are thwarted because he cannot find work. His brother Bill is killed for “scabbing” during a strike, and in desperation, he goes along with Ganz, who plans to rob a bank. The plan is a fiasco. Butch is shot but escapes long enough to die in the arms of the Girl.
Belle, Hoinck’s wife. Married to Hoinck for more than thirty years, she has a heart as big as her body. She serves and nurtures him, as well as her women friends, amid the chaos and poverty overshadowing their lives. She dispenses bootleg liquor along with her homemade “booya,” a rich, nourishing stew. When Hoinck is killed in the bank robbery, she moves with her women friends to the warehouse and continues to sustain others.
Ganz, the “stool,” betrays through greed. He and his lawyer, Hone, use and manipulate the downtrodden. He rapes the Girl and shoots Hoinck and Butch. During the robbery, Butch shoots him.
Amelia, a woman who frequents the speakeasy distributing leaflets of the Workers Alliance. She also serves others through her labor, whether peeling carrots or midwifing. Faithful and helpful, she is a bulwark against the ravages of poverty. She helps see the Girl through her delivery.
Emily Schaffer, the Girl’s mother, who has given birth to eleven children. She lives a life of poverty yet imparts a sense of “it’s good to live” to the Girl.
Hoinck, Belle’s husband. He is a bootlegger and works in a speakeasy. He has tried honest occupations, from selling handmade toys to street preaching, but he failed at all of them. He is shot in the back during the bank robbery.