In the Salinas Valley, in and around World War I, Cal Trask feels he must compete against overwhelming odds with his brother Aron for the love of their father Adam. Cal is frustrated at every turn, from his reaction to the war, to how to get ahead in business and in life, to how to relate to estranged mother.
Terry Malloy dreams about being a prize fighter, while tending his pigeons and running errands at the docks for Johnny Friendly, the corrupt boss of the dockers union. Terry witnesses a murder by two of Johnny’s thugs, and later meets the dead man’s sister and feels responsible for his death. She introduces him to Father Barry, who tries to force him to provide information for the courts that will smash the dock racketeers.
A young field administrator for the TVA comes to rural Tennessee to oversee the building of a dam on the Tennessee River. He encounters opposition from the local people, in particular a farmer who objects to his employment (with pay) of local black laborers. Much of the plot revolves around the eviction of an elderly woman from her home on an island in the River, and the young man’s love affair with that woman’s widowed granddaughter.
In Brooklyn circa 1900, the Nolans manage to enjoy life on pennies despite great poverty and Papa’s alcoholism. We come to know these people well through big and little troubles: Aunt Sissy’s scandalous succession of “husbands”; the removal of the one tree visible from their tenement; and young Francie’s desire to transfer to a better school…if irresponsible Papa can get his act together.