The protagonist and narrator of the memoir. Jeannette is a precocious, ambitious, and resourceful child who does everything she can to survive and improve her family’s situation. For most of her childhood, she is her father’s favorite child because she encourages and believes in him. As the memoir progresses, she realizes that her Dad and Mom do not have her best interests at heart, and she uses the independence her parents taught her to forge a life of her own.
Jeannette’s charismatic but reckless father. Dad loves to speak of his own accomplishments, portraying himself as special and above the rules. However, he also refuses to keep a steady job and physically abuses Mom. As the memoir progresses, his alcoholism and irresponsibility put his family in the way of starvation and physical danger with increasing frequency. We later learn he had a difficult childhood and is a survivor of sexual abuse.
Jeannette’s mother, a passionate artist and self-proclaimed “excitement addict.” She is ambivalent about domestic responsibilities, such as cooking, cleaning, and disciplining children. She often tells the children to extend compassion to those who hurt them, but her definition of compassion involves never setting boundaries.
Jeannette’s sensible older sister, who questions Mom and Dad’s parenting from an early age. Lori is intelligent and known for her quick, sarcastic remarks. She inherited Mom’s passion for art, though she aspires to leave her family and live a more conventional lifestyle. She is the first Walls child to leave the family and go to New York City.
Jeannette’s little brother and constant companion. Brian likes to explore his surroundings and work outside. He and Jeannette regularly band together to survive by foraging for food, finding dry firewood, and occasionally stealing from neighbors. He follows Jeannette and Lori to New York City when he is a junior in high school.
Jeannette’s beautiful youngest sibling. Unlike the other Walls siblings who bond together in the face of adversity, Maureen survives in Welch mostly by making friends and living with their families. Later in life, Maureen drops out of community college and tries to stab her mother. She spends a year in a mental institution and then moves to California.
Jeannette’s maternal grandmother who often takes in the Walls family when they are down on their luck. Mom hated how strict and controlling she was as a mother, but Jeannette appreciates the structure whenever they visit.
Jeannette’s paternal grandmother, whom the family lives with when they first move to Welch. Erma is an angry, racist woman who has had a hard life and lashes out at the Walls children because of it. She sexually abuses Brian and may have inflicted similar abuse on her own children.
A girl who attends Jeannette’s school, and one of her few friends in Welch. Dinitia bullies Jeannette when the Walls family first moves to Welch, but the girls become friends after Jeannette defends one of Dinitia’s neighbors from a dog. Because Dinitia is black, their friendship is unconventional in Welch, which is still very segregated.
Dad’s brother. He is kind to the Walls children when they live with Erma, but then later molests Jeannette when she visits his house.
The Walls’ neighbor in Battle Mountain, a violent and aggressive boy who develops an infatuation with Jeannette. At only eleven years old, he already has a record as a juvenile delinquent. He actively pursues Jeannette romantically and tries to force himself on her when they play hide and seek. When Jeannette rejects him, he shoots at her and her siblings with his BB gun.
Dad’s father who worked on the railroad when Dad was a child. Unlike his wife, Erma, and his son, Stanley, Grandpa doesn’t make much of an impression on Jeannette, neither abetting his wife’s abuse nor challenging it.
Jeannette’s first husband, a kind, wealthy man who is practical and organized, in many ways the antithesis of Dad. Jeannette leaves Eric a year after her father dies.
Jeannette’s second husband, who admires her strength and scars. He is a writer like Jeannette.