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The main theme of the novel is the challenge of maturing, especially in a poor environment. The growth of Francie, the protagonist, is traced from her early days in Williamsburg to her departure for college. Life is never easy for this young girl. She is surrounded by a mother who favors her brother Neeley and a father who drinks too much and cannot hold down a job. Although the family suffers from poverty, living in a shabby house in a poor section of town, Francie thrives because of the bond of love the family shares and because of her own strength and determination.
Although life is impoverished for Francie, she finds ways to entertain herself. She gathers junk and sells it for a few pennies so that she can purchase candy and other treats. She goes to the library daily and reads a book each night. She studies hard in school and usually earns A's. She decides to change schools, for she finds one that appears to be better than the one she attends. She shares her thoughts and feelings with her beloved father, Johnny, and even with her brother, Neeley. She also helps to perform the household duties, and particularly enjoys doing things for her father, like ironing his shirts.
Although Francie endures many setbacks as she grows up, each seems to make her more determined to succeed. By the end of the novel, she is a pillar of strength, heading to college, even though she does not have a high school diploma. The reader is certain that Francie Nolan has permanently left Williamsburg and a life of poverty behind.