Author and main narrator of the memoir, he is artistically inclined. James is a writer, journalist, jazz musician, and composer. Like his mother, he places significant emphasis on his Christian faith and on family unity. As a young man, he expresses his confusion by succumbing to drugs and crime. Later, he becomes diligent and determined.
The central figure of the memoir, she is the tough but big-hearted mother of James and eleven other children. A Polish Jewish immigrant, she is spiritual, intelligent, determined, practical, and brave. She stresses the importance of work, school, and God. She chose an unconventional life, and succeeds in it because she has the grit and conviction to endure hardships.
Ruth's first husband and James's biological father. Dennis was a violinist from North Carolina who Ruth met while working at her aunt's leather factory. He was gentle and strong, and fathered eight of Ruth's twelve children. He died from lung cancer at a young age.
Ruth's second husband and James's primary male role model. Hunter was a mechanic for the New York City Housing Authority. He met Ruth shortly after her first husband's death, married her, and had four children with her. Like Dennis, he was rather conservative. He shared Ruth's notions of the importance of God, family, and education. He died of a stroke when James was a teenager, and his entire family recalls him with fondness.
Ruth's mother, she suffered from polio her entire life. Soft-spoken and meek, she deferred to Ruth's father in virtually all matters. While she came from a well-to-do background, her family had little to do with her because of her handicap. Ruth felt that her mother was good to her, and suffered a lifelong sense of guilt for not taking better care of Mameh.
Ruth's father. Tateh was an incredibly difficult person. He was racist, demanding, harsh, unloving, and greedy. He sexually abused his daughter Ruth. He finalized his separation from Ruth when he told her never to return home if she married a black man.
Ruth's younger sister. Dee-Dee was a shy, pretty girl, less strong-willed than Ruth. She had fewer conflicts with her father than Ruth did, and she was more Americanized from a young age. While Ruth always envied her, later in life she realized that Dee-Dee had suffered sorrow and desperation.
Ruth's brother, he is two years older than Ruth. Tateh was particularly hard on the timid, sensitive Sam, expecting expects him to fulfill many duties at the family store. Sam found the burden too weighty and ran away at fifteen. He was killed in the army during World War II.
Ruth's only childhood friend in Suffolk. Frances was sweet and accepting of Ruth, even though she is from a gentile family. Ruth's few good memories of Suffolk involve the time she spent playing with Frances.
Ruth's maternal grandmother, she is one of her few family members Ruth recalls fondly. Bubeh allowed Ruth to stay with her in New York. While Bubeh tried to shape Ruth's behavior in some ways, she also gave Ruth some space, and seemed to accept her.
Ruth's aunts, and Hudis's sisters. They were wealthy, and generally snobby toward Ruth, although Aunt Betsy helps Ruth when she needs an abortion.
Ruth's first boyfriend, he was the first black person with whom Ruth was genuinely close. Because of the heated racial atmosphere of the times, Peter and Ruth had to see one another secretly. Ruth got pregnant by Peter during her adolescence, but chose not to have the baby.
James's older sister and Ruth's daughter. Helen is a strong-willed and pretty girl who runs away from home at the age of fifteen. Perhaps more than any of James's other siblings, her struggles with her background exemplify the political and racial turmoil of the 1960s. She eventually returned home, but her conflict with Ruth had a large impact on.
James's older sister. James lives with Jack in Louisville, Kentucky for three summers during his teenage years. James regards her as sweet and fun, but she is also serious: she warns him seriously about his drug abuse and petty crime. Jack's opinion matters to James, and eventually he heeds her advice.
Jack's husband. Big Richard is a tough and fun guy who introduces James to all the working men on "the corner."
Part of the crew on "the corner." Chicken Man is endearing and intelligent, but he has done little with his life, wasting money and time on the corner drinking.