The novel’s three main characters are Jim, Anna, and Mazie; the other Holbrook children play a secondary role, and various neighbors and co-workers form a third level of characterization. The central character is probably Mazie, for much of the action of the novel is filtered through her consciousness and she is clearly the persona of the adult author. The thematic center of the book, however, is Anna Holbrook, the courageous, suffering mother who is trying to wrestle dignity out of her family’s struggle to survive in this world, and the main protagonist is Jim, whose search for work propels the action of the novel but whose weaknesses also contribute to its tragedy. (It is Jim’s demands for sexual relations with his pregnant wife that lead to the final miscarriage.) Jim is not a bad man; like the rest of the Holbrook family and like their neighbors in various Western homes, he is merely a victim of the crushing socioeconomic circumstances that existed in pre-Depression America.
Mazie’s mind is poetic, and it permeates the novel. She is a sensitive child (often with thoughts too adult for her own good), and her voice lifts the novel above the sordid level of its drama. Similarly, the actions of Anna to hold this family together in spite of inordinate difficulties raise this domestic tragedy above the level of much fiction of the 1930’s. At the end of the novel, and in spite of her weakened condition, Anna is taking in laundry to earn money for her children’s education, and she and the children wander the outskirts of Omaha in search of the spring dandelions she can use as greens on her meager supper table. She is a valiant, remarkable woman who reminds the reader of the protagonist of Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker (1954) and of a number of women in contemporary feminist fiction.