The story opens with Jimmie, at this point a young boy, trying to fight a gang of boys from an opposing neighborhood all by himself. He is saved by Pete, and comes home to his sister Maggie, his toddling brother Tommie, his brutal and drunken father and mother, Mary Johnson. The parents terrify the children until they are shuddering in the corner. Years pass, the father and Tommie die, and Jimmie hardens into a sneering, aggressive, cynical youth. He gets a job as a teamster. Maggie begins to work in a shirt factory, but her attempts to improve her life are undermined by her mother's drunken rages.