Jennifer L. Holm’s children’s novel Penny From Heaven begins in June 1953, when the narrator, eleven-year-old Barbara Ann “Penny” Falucci, is on summer vacation from school. Penny explains that everyone calls her Penny because her father, who died when she was just a baby, loved Bing Crosby and his song “Pennies From Heaven.” Penny lives in New Jersey with her mother and her mother’s parents, whom she calls Me-me and Pop-pop, along with her fifteen-year-old poodle Scarlett O’Hara. However, her father’s large Italian-American family lives very close by, and she also spends a lot of time visiting them.
Penny often visits her favorite uncle, Dominic, who is a bit of an eccentric and lives in a car parked beside Penny’s grandmother Falucci’s house. Grandmother Falucci, or “Nonny,” lives with her adult son, Penny’s Uncle Paulie, and his wife Gina; Penny’s other uncles, Nunzio, Ralphie, and Sally, her Aunt Teresa, and her twelve-year-old cousin Frankie also live nearby. At the beginning of the novel, Penny visits Uncle Dominic to listen to the Dodgers game on his car radio, and Uncle Dominic gives her a “magic bean” he meant to give to her father but never had a chance to.
Penny’s Uncle Ralphie offers both Penny and Frankie jobs at his butcher shop, and Penny begs her mother to let her work there. At first, her mother refuses, fearing it could be dangerous—as Penny explains, her mother’s afraid of everything and will not even let Penny go to the public swimming pool or movie theater because she might catch polio. Finally, however, her mother relents and lets her take the job. Penny is ecstatic, particularly because she will get to work with Frankie, whom she considers her best friend—especially since she has had a falling out with one of the popular girls at school, Veronica Goodman, and has since been ignored by her female classmates.
Penny and Frankie begin work at the butcher shop, making deliveries to customers, as Penny continues to describe her family and her everyday life. Uncle Dominic also works in the butcher shop—Penny explains that he used to be a minor league baseball player and was even invited to spring training with the Dodgers, but then something happened, and he quit. Penny also reveals more about her cousin Frankie: she says that Frankie’s father, Uncle Angelo, who is not a Falucci, once robbed a five-and-dime store and went to jail. As a result, Frankie, who idolizes his father, thinks being a criminal “would be neat.”
At home, Penny is worried about her dog, Scarlett O’Hara, who’s begun to pee on the floor and does not seem to be doing well. She is also frustrated by the fact that her mother and grandparents refuse to tell her anything about her father—her grandparents brush off any questions about him, and Penny will not even mention him to her mother for fear of upsetting her. In fact, Penny says, the memory of her father so disturbs her mother that she quit her job as a nurse at the hospital where her father was treated. Now, her mother has a much lower-paying job as a secretary at a truck factory. In addition, Penny resents the fact that her mother’s family does not get along well with the Faluccis—Penny is the only person who moves freely between her mother and father’s families and feels equally comfortable with both groups.
When Penny’s Pop-pop decides to paint all the furniture black, Penny gets black paint in her hair, and Me-me has to cut part of it out.Veronica Goodman makes fun of Penny’s hair, and Penny explains that she and Veronica used to be friends, but Penny’s uncle Ralphie refused to rent a building to Veronica’s father.
Penny goes over to her grandmother Falucci's (“Nonny's”) house, and the difference between her mother’s and father’s families immediately becomes clear. While Penny’s mother refuses to remember her father at all, Nonny still wears all black years after his death and cries every time she sees Penny. Nonny has a shrine to her son in the hallway, and during Penny’s visit, Nonny and Uncle Paulie make one of their frequent trips to the cemetery to visit his grave. Penny and Frankie tag along, and Penny mentions that her uncles are always telling her funny stories about her father.
Penny returns to Nonny’s house for Sunday dinner, a weekly tradition she shares with her father’s family. Again, Penny notes the differences between her two families: while Me-me’s cooking is barely edible, Nonny spends hours preparing lavish, delicious multicourse Italian meals. And the atmosphere at Nonny’s is much more lively: people are always coming and going, something’s always cooking, and her uncles stay up until two in the morning playing cards. Only Uncle Dominic avoids the merriment, staying outside or in his car with his two dachshunds. As Penny says, he seems to prefer dogs to people.
After the Sunday meal, Penny goes to Uncle Nunzio’s clothing factory, where she picks out a coat for herself and one for her mother. A few days later, she awakens to the unusual sound of her mother laughing and finds her mother on the porch talking to the milkman, Mr. Mulligan.Later, Penny accompanies Pop-pop to the tobacco shop and waits for him outside. Jack Teitelweig, a boy Penny has a crush on, walks by, but Pop-pop’s ready to go before they can strike up a conversation.
One day, Frankie and Penny are helping with the laundry in Nonny’s basement, and Frankie mentions that his father lost his job again. Penny reveals that Frankie’s father, Angelo, is a bit of a drunk and loses jobs quite frequently. After doing the laundry, Penny and Frankie decide to sneak into Nonny’s room and see if her underwear is black, just as the rest of her clothes are. While Nonny’s taking a bath, Penny searches her drawers and finds not underwear, but a photo album full of newspaper articles written by her father. Nonny catches Penny in the act, but she is not angry—she continues to change in her bedroom as if Penny is not there. Thus Penny discovers that Nonny’s slip is not black—it is white. Penny realizes her grandmother wears black not in mourning, but as a kind of armor in a land so different from her native Italy.
Penny comes home to find her mother wearing a pretty dress; she is going out with Mr. Mulligan, and as Penny quickly guesses, it is not the first time. Penny notices her mother has taken her engagement ring off, and she stays up to see Mr. Mulligan kiss her mother when he drops her off at home. A few days later, Mr. Mulligan comes over to listen to the Dodgers game on the radio and get to know Penny. Penny is irritated, as she usually listens to the game with Uncle Dominic, and Mr. Mulligan keeps trying to talk to her during the game. Finally, horrified by the thought of Mr. Mulligan becoming her stepfather, Penny flees and runs to Uncle Dominic for comfort.
While Penny and Frankie are working in the butcher shop, their uncle Sally comes in and mentions that Nonny’s late husband may have buried some money outside his house. Frankie, of course, immediately hopes to uncover the money so he will not have to worry about his father’s unemployment. Penny finds out Uncle Paulie and Aunt Gina are going to Atlantic City for their anniversary, and Frankie decides it is the perfect opportunity to sneak over and search the yard. At night, Penny and Frankie meet in Nonny’s yard and dig beneath a stone Frankie thinks is a marker. However, all they uncover is the corpse of one of Uncle Dominic’s former dogs. Then Dominic’s current dogs begin to bark, and Nonny appears on the porch—with a gun. The two manage to run off before Nonny recognizes them. The next day, Frankie enthusiastically shows Penny the police blotter in the newspaper, with the headline “Suspected Intruder Reported.”
Penny and Frankie play baseball with the neighborhood kids, and Veronica shows up and teases Penny about...
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