Chapter Seven shifts to 12 years ago, in the summer of 1900. This is when Johnny Nolan first met Katie (Rommely). He was 19 of Irish Catholic parents and she was 17 and her parents were Austrian Catholics. She was working in the Castle Braid factory with her best friend, Hildy O’Dair. At this time, Hildy was Johnny’s girlfriend, but, when Katie and Johnny’s friend made up a foursome on a date, Katie could not stop watching Johnny. She wanted nothing more than to look at him and listen to him: ‘She should have waited until some man came along who felt that way about her.’ If she had waited, her children would not be hungry and she would not have to scrub floors.
Katie’s determination to ‘get him’ leads to their marriage after only knowing each other for four months.
The narrative moves on to describe Katie’s family. Her father, Thomas Rommely, is described as hateful of everybody and everything and insists on speaking German in the home. Francie hates him as much as his daughters do. By contrast, Mary Rommely (Francie’s grandmother) is saintly. She cannot read or write, but she knows over a thousand stories and is intensely religious. She did not want her children to leave school early or marry terrible men.
Mary and Thomas’ eldest child, Sissy never went to school, as Mary did not know education was free at this point. Sissy’s bigamous marriages are then detailed, as are her stillborn babies. We are also told of how Sissy insists on calling her husbands ‘John’ even though that is not their name. By the age of 24, Sissy had born eight children and all of whom died.
Sissy’s next sister is Eliza, who barely features in the novel as she joined a convent at the age of 16. Evy is the third Rommely girl and she is the ‘refined one of the family’. Her husband Willie is a milkman and is described as somewhat dull and only talks about his feud with his horse, Drummer.
Chapter Eight offers a description of Johnny’s family. He is one of four brothers who all left school at the age of 12. They were poor, but always well dressed. All of the boys died before the age of 35. Andy, for example, died of tuberculosis. Johnny is the only one to live past his 30th birthday.
In Chapter Nine, the early period of Katie and Johnny’s marriage is described. At first, they worked together as janitors of a public school. On the night Katie is giving birth to Francie, though, Johnny gets drunk and forgets to go to the school. He misses the birth of his baby and the pipes at the school burst because he had not turned the fire on. They lose this job.
Katie is despondent after giving birth and asks her mother for advice on how to escape the poverty they are trapped in. Mary says she can make a difference for her children by ensuring they are educated. She says they should read a page of Shakespeare and a page of the Bible every day to ensure they know ‘that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world’. She also insists the children’s imaginations are encouraged. Lastly, she says Katie must save to own a piece of land, so the children can inherit. She advises her to save five cents a day and explains how to make a ‘tin-can bank’ (from a tin can) and nail it in a cupboard.
These chapters fill in the background of the lives of Francie’s parents. By introducing their histories, the readers are given a greater understanding of the extent of their poverty and how much they have had to struggle to exist.
It is also in these chapters that we see the reason for the children being made to read from Shakespeare’s work and the Bible. It is Mary Rommely’s advice that has brought this about and this is founded on the belief that education and allowing a child to have aspirations is the basis for them escaping their present circumstances. Mary instils in Katie the concept that this impossible existence does not have to be inevitable. When this is combined with Johnny’s fecklessness, it is hinted that poverty is brought on oneself rather than imposed through a capitalist system. However, the novel is quick to remind the readers, in these and later chapters, that Francie’s family is hard-working and the system that allows children to starve is beyond the pale.