Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3221
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 working at the butcher shop, then calls her uncle Dominic crazy. Penny punches Veronica, Veronica smacks her back, and soon a huge fight breaks out among all the neighborhood kids. That same day, Mr. Mulligan comes to dinner, and Penny tricks him into eating huge helpings of Me-me’s terrible cooking. Afterwards, Penny feels satisfied and sure that Mr. Mulligan won’t be back.
Penny’s twelfth birthday arrives, and her mother gives her a necklace she had made from her ruby engagement ring. Penny is upset, seeing this as another sign her mother’s trying to move on to a new relationship. Later, at the butcher shop, Uncle Ralphie sends Penny and Frankie over to Nonny’s with a bag of groceries, and they find the entire family inside, waiting to surprise her. All of Penny’s relatives give her presents, but the most exciting gift is definitely Uncle Dominic’s: tickets to that night’s Dodgers game, including one for Frankie. Penny goes home and finds her mother setting up for another surprise party. Her mother agrees to let Penny skip the party and go to the Dodgers game, although she is clearly disappointed. Uncle Dominic drives Penny and Frankie through New York City for the first time, and they arrive at the stadium to discover their seats are in the front row. Penny has a wonderful time.
A few days later, Penny wakes up to find her poodle Scarlett O’Hara lying in her own mess and unable to move her back legs. Penny takes her to the vet, who says she is really sick and all they can do is make her comfortable. Back at home, Penny sits on the porch with Scarlett O’Hara, but a hand reaches out from the bushes and pulls her over. It is Frankie, who has been hiding there because he robbed St. Anthony’s, the church where he is an altar boy, and smashed a window to get out.Penny convinces Frankie to call uncle Ralphie, who picks the boy up and takes him to the police station; Frankie tells Penny he is sure he’ll be sent to reform school. Penny comes home to find that her poodle has died, and, fearing that Frankie will leave her too, she begs Uncle Dominic to help him.
Uncle Dominic talks to Uncle Nunzio, who is friendly with the bishop, and the bishop agrees to drop the charges against Frankie. However, Frankie will have to work at Nunzio’s factory to pay for a new window.Luckily, Frankie’s father has found a new job driving a truck. Penny decides to bury Scarlett O’Hara in Nonny’s backyard, next to Uncle Dominic’s dogs.
On an unusually hot day, Frankie is hanging out at Penny’s house while her mother is at work. When her grandparents go out too, Frankie convinces Penny to go to the public pool, even though she is strictly forbidden to do so. Penny arrives at the pool to discover her crush, Jack, is a junior lifeguard; she is daydreaming about him when she hears his voice over the loudspeaker, asking her to come to the lifeguard stand. Penny sees her mother standing there, and all the kids at the pool laugh.
After the incident, Penny is not allowed to leave her house for the rest of the summer, except to go to the store and Nonny’s house. To make things worse, her mother is dating Mr. Mulligan again. One day, while Penny’s mother is at work, Uncle Dominic does convince Me-me to let him take Penny to the beach, where they swim and ride the rides at the boardwalk.
Frankie, meanwhile, has decided Grandfather Falucci must have hidden his treasure in the basement. One day, Penny and Frankie offer to do laundry while everyone else is out. Penny feeds laundry through the wringer machine while Frankie searches for loose bricks in the ceiling.Suddenly, Frankie shouts, and Penny turns to see him pulling a cigar box from a hole in the ceiling. He opens the box and stumbles, and bills start fluttering out.
Then Penny feels a tug on her arm and looks back to find her right arm going through the wringer; the unbearable pain starts a moment later.Her entire arm goes through the wringer, all the way up to the armpit, before Frankie can stop the machine. Frankie runs to get Uncle Dominic, who gets her arm out of the wringer and rushes her to the hospital.
Penny awakens in the hospital to hear her mother yelling at Uncle Dominic, telling him he “killed Freddy” [Penny’s father] and has now nearly killed her daughter too. Penny’s mother slaps Dominic before Penny tells her to stop; her mother rushes over to her, and the rest of the family leaves them alone. Penny’s physician, Dr. Goldstein, tells her the nerves of her shoulder have been damaged, and if they do not heal, her arm may never work again.
Penny has to stay in the pediatric ward, and though her family visits often, she becomes increasingly frustrated because she is right handed, and without the use of her arm, she finds it difficult to do anything.Penny has a skin graft operation to repair the skin of her armpit, and the operation’s a success, but her arm still does not work. At this point, Uncle Dominic is the only family member who has not visited; she asks Frankie about him, and he tells her Dominic left for Florida the day Penny got hurt.
The doctor and Penny’s mother have a serious conversation, and while Penny cannot hear them, she sees the expression on her mother’s face and realizes her arm is never going to work again. Soon after this, Mr. Mulligan comes to visit, bringing her butter pecan ice cream and reading her newspaper coverage of the Dodgers. After that, Mr. Mulligan comes every day, reads her the paper from cover to cover, and tells her stories about his time in the war; Penny comes to enjoy spending time with him.
School starts up for the fall, and Penny’s still in the hospital. One night, she overhears a nurse and orderly gossiping about her father. She hears one say, “So he was really a spy?” and “They took him away?” while the other answers, “Died in jail, I heard.” The next morning Penny confronts her mother, telling her she knows her father’s a spy. Her mother runs out, distraught, so Aunt Gina ends up telling Penny her father’s story.
After Penny was born, Aunt Gina begins, her father did not want to leave her to go to Dodgers games, so Uncle Dominic bought him a fancy radio to listen to the games at home. Then the FBI came and took Dominic and Freddy away. As Aunt Gina explains, after Pearl Harbor, Italians without citizenship could not have radios, flashlights, or cameras.Because Freddy was born in Italy and had never become a U.S. citizen, he and Nonny had to register as enemy aliens. The FBI became particularly suspicious when they found out Freddy wrote for an Italian-language newspaper, and while they let Dominic go, they sent Freddy to an internment camp in Maryland and then another camp in Oklahoma.In the second camp, Penny’s father became ill and died. After the incident, Dominic quit playing ball and was never the same again.
Penny’s mother returns to her room and confirms Aunt Gina’s story. She adds that her supervisor at the hospital made a rude comment about Freddy, and that was why she left nursing. Penny tells her mother she wishes she had told her the truth before, and she also asks what her father thought of her; her mother says he loved her very much and called her “Daddy’s little girl.”
A new patient named Vivian, who has just had her appendix out, moves into the bed next to Penny to recuperate. Penny offers to give Vivian her lucky bean, but when she reaches for it, she accidentally knocks it off the table. Before the bean can fall to the floor, Penny, without thinking, reaches out her bad arm to grab it; she discovers she can move her arm again. Penny stays in the hospital a bit longer, working on using her injured arm, before she is released in mid-September. She returns to school and discovers she is suddenly popular because of her injury—boys offer to carry her books, and Veronica leaves her alone.
At home, Pop-pop brings Penny a kitten, whom she names Rhett after the movie character Rhett Butler. Mr. Mulligan now comes over for dinner all the time. Frankie’s still working at Uncle Nunzio’s factory, and, inspired by his uncle, he now wants to become a businessman instead of a criminal. Penny still works in the butcher shop after school, and one day her crush Jack comes to see her and asks if she would like to go out sometime. Of course, she agrees.
Finally, Uncle Dominic comes home, and he and Penny talk about her father. Uncle Dominic says the incident was his fault, since he constantly bragged about the fancy radio he bought Freddy, and some of the neighbors must have told the FBI. Penny, however, understands how much Uncle Dominic loved her father and forgives him. Uncle Dominic also reveals that Penny is not named after a Bing Crosby song.Rather, the family began calling her Penny after her father’s death because during his illness, he wrote them, “That baby’s just like a lost penny I’ll never hold again.”
Mr. Mulligan asks Penny’s permission to marry her mother, and Penny agrees. At the wedding, Penny is both the flower girl and the maid of honor. Her mother even talks about becoming a nurse again.
Penny asks her mother why her family and the Faluccis do not get along. Penny’s mother explains that the Faluccis had an Italian girl in mind for Freddy. In addition, because Penny’s mother did not convert to Catholicism before Freddy’s death, he could not be buried beside his relatives in the Catholic cemetery.
Inspired by Penny’s question, her mother invites all the Faluccis over for dinner, including Uncle Dominic. Everyone gets along, and Penny calls it “the best meal I’ve ever had in my whole life.” After the dinner, however, the families continue with their separate lives rather than continuing to connect. Uncle Dominic does not return to playing ball or dating, but he does move out of his car and into Nonny’s basement. Penny acknowledges that her own life, and those of the family members she loves so much, will never be perfect; still, she decides as the novel ends, everything is “all right somehow.”
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