The author and protagonist of the autobiography, Jack leads the reader through his troubled boyhood, which is plagued by domestic abuse and misbehavior. Despite his grim upbringing, Jack remains hopeful and is convinced that he is capable of a better life. In elementary school, Jack change his name from Toby to Jack, after the author ##Jack London# which his mother begrudgingly allows him to do.
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Jack's mother struggles financially to support herself and her son, but though she is neglectful at times, she loves Jack very much. Rosemary was abused as a child and cannot bring herself to inflict violence or any sort of punishment on Jack, even though she has the habit of taking up with violent men who inflict that same abuse on both of them.
A cruel and violent man who convinces Rosemary to marry him and move to Chinook to live with him. Dwight is especially resentful of Jack and treats him with the utmost brutality. Dwight drinks to excess, steals Jack's and Rosemary's money, and often instigates physical altercations with Jack.
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Jack's kind older brother, who is a student at Princeton while Jack is still in high school. Geoffrey has grown up in his father's custody and goes for years without seeing Jack. Six years after their last meeting, he and Jack begin corresponding by mail. When Jack tells Geoffrey of the abuse he endures in Chinook, Geoffrey encourages Jack to apply to private schools on the east coast and arranges for them to meet during the summer. When they do meet, Geoffrey cares for Jack like a father.
Jack's biological father is a compulsive liar, who makes promises to Jack that he cannot keep. When Jack goes to stay with Arthur for the summer, Arthur leaves for a vacation with his girlfriend on the day of Jack's arrival. When Jack's father returns, he is arrested and committed to a sanitarium, where he remains for the rest of Jack's visit.
The overweight, outcast boy who spends most of his time with his dog, Pepper, and eventually becomes Jack's best friend. After Jack calls Arthur a sissy, they get into a fistfight. After the fight they become friends, although ultimately, because of Jack's insensitivity, that friendship does not last.
The son of a minister, Chuck Jack's gentle, somewhat alcoholic friend who impregnates Tina Flood, an overweight and promiscuous fifteen-year-old girl at their high school. Chuck refuses to marry Tina, and is pardoned when his friend Huff agrees to marry her instead. Jack lives with Chuck for a short period.
A short but physically strong boy, Huff is popular with the girls at school and is exceptionally vain. Huff bullies even those who have beaten him in fistfights. He later marries the pregnant Tina to save himself from doing jail time as an accessory to statutory rape.
Rosemary's alcoholic and abusive ex-husband who follows her and Jack from Sarasota to Salt Lake City after she has fled from him. Roy is extremely possessive of Rosemary and checks up on her obsessively. Roy has a fascination for guns, and gives Jack his Winchester .22.
Dwight's eldest daughter, for whom Jack harbors a secret infatuation. Norma is sweet and chipper in her youth, and loves Bobby Crow, a good-hearted boy from school whom she calls "Bobo." Later, Norma decides that Bobby is not ambitious enough to marry and settles for Kenneth, a miserable man who turns her tired and morose.
Norma's high school sweetheart, an Indian boy from Marblemount who is a star football quarterback at Concrete High. When Norma decides not to marry Bobby, he is heartbroken and turns angry and bitter.
The detestable, argumentative man Norma suddenly chooses to marry instead of Bobby. Kenneth is a strict Christian and attempts to impose his values upon everyone else.
Dwight's coddled youngest child, who is nearly the same age as Jack. Pearl and Jack despise one another, particularly when they are young, and do everything possible to get on each other's nerves. Pearl especially enjoys seeing Jack bear the brunt of Dwight's wrath.
A few years older than Jack, Dwight's second-eldest child, Skipper, is reserved and polite. He spends months transforming a beat-up 1949 Ford, only to have it destroyed in a sandstorm on his way to Mexico.
An alumnus of Hill Preparatory School who is sent to interview Jack before his acceptance. Mr. Howard is exceedingly happy when Jack is accepted at Hill, and generously takes him to his own tailor in Seattle to be fitted for a new school wardrobe.
A simple, gentle boy with whom Jack is sometimes made to wrestle in gym class. The Welch boy's father owns a farm from which Jack and Chuck are caught stealing.
The honest and spunky nun at Jack's elementary school in Salt Lake City who organizes after-school activities to keep her students out of trouble. Sister James shows a particular concern for Jack, and when he has trouble confessing his sins to the priest, she takes him to the kitchen, where shares her own stories of childhood delinquency.
The obnoxious, overweight housekeeper in the Seattle boarding-house. Marian and Jack have nothing but disdain for one another, principally because she is always urging Rosemary to discipline Jack with more force. Marian shares the ramshackle house with Kathy and Rosemary.
A plain and shy secretary who tries to conceal her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Rosemary first meets Kathy while they both reside in the boarding-house in Seattle. Later, before Kathy gives birth to her son, Willy, she shares a ramshackle house with Rosemary and Marian.
Jack's delinquent friends from Salt Lake City. Together with Jack, Terry and Terry egg passersby from the roof of an apartment building and watch the Mickey Mouse Club while making vulgar remarks about one of the show's stars.
Rosemary's brother and Jack's uncle, who lives in Paris. After Jack writes to Stephen with an exaggerated tale of his grim family situation, Stephen invites Jack to live with him and his family in Paris, but only if Jack will agree to forfeit his name so that Stephen can officially adopt him.
The gym teacher at Concrete high who organizes the "smokers" and forces Jack and Arthur to battle one another in the ring.
The fifteen-year-old girl who is impregnated by Chuck Bolger. Tina's father charges Chuck with statutory rape and also holds Huff responsible. Huff marries Tina so that he will not have to do jail time.