Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The novel is a coming-of-age story set in early 20th-century New York City. Mike, the protagonist, lives with his family on the Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His parents, like most adults in the neighborhood, are Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, while most of the children are US-born. The family’s expenses are more than the parents can earn, so when he is twelve years old, Mike leaves school to work full time. Amidst many hardships that the family endures, the death of his younger sister, Esther, stands out as a tragedy that affects the family deeply.
Mike’s mother and father are both present in the home, but his father has become disabled, so they rely primarily on his mother’s earnings. Herman, Mike's father, had been earning fairly well as a housepainter, but an injury from a fall and lead poisoning from the paint left him unable to work. Although he tries to do odd jobs, such as selling fruit, more often he stays home. Katie, Mike's mother, works in a cafeteria and tries to be a full-time mother in the remaining hours.
Esther’s death occurs in the winter when she is out on the street scrounging for wood scraps for their fire. A commercial truck strikes and kills her. The family’s pain is compounded by an attorney who wants them to hire him to sue the company, a proposition that nauseates the parents. Katie’s grief renders her unable to work. At one point they consider accepting aid from a charity organization, but they opt against it when its representative pries too much into their personal affairs. Mike learns to be skeptical of handouts and is determined to earn money as soon as he can.
Mike’s school days are not only of limited value educationally, but he endures teachers’ anti-Semitic insults and corporeal punishment. He also must learn U.S. history and culture and translate it for his parents, such as the story of the first Thanksgiving. His parents conclude the feast was not for Jews because the turkey is not kosher. As Mike learns about Judaism, he wonders about the concept of the Messiah and deliverance, conflating it with vengeance.
Mike’s initial employment efforts teach him more about anti-Semitism in employment, and he learns that even Jews may not hire Jews. Mike’s ideas about deliverance, influenced by many vocal socialists around him, begin to veer toward revolutionary social movements and away from religion.