40 pages 1 hour read

Irene Hunt

No Promises In The Wind

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1970

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


No Promises in the Wind is a young-adult historical novel that takes place at the height of the Great Depression. The first-person narrative tells the coming-of-age story of a 15-year-old boy who leaves home with his younger brother because their family doesn’t have enough to eat. Josh and Joey Grondowski use their musical talents to survive on their own as they travel through a country of angry and impoverished people. First published in 1970, the book is appropriate reading for ages 12 to 17.

Irene Hunt, the author of No Promises in the Wind, has written several novels for young readers. She won a Newbery Award for Across Five Aprils, another historical novel about a young man who comes of age during the American Civil War. Hunt taught English and served as a director of language arts in Illinois public schools. She was also a professor of psychology at the University of South Dakota.

This guide uses the reissued edition of the book, published in 1986.

Plot Summary

In October 1932, the Grondowski family of Chicago is struggling. The father, Stefan, has been out of work for eight months. Fifteen-year-old Josh has a newspaper route, and his mother, Mary, has an ironing gig at a laundry; their meager earnings are the family’s entire income since Josh’s older half-sister, Kitty, lost her clerking job.

Josh, the story’s narrator, has a gift for music and even composes pieces on the piano. He enjoys making music with his friend Howie, who plays the banjo. Josh inherited his musical talents from his parents. Mary once taught piano, and Stefan’s parents were both musicians. Stefan used to love music too, but he now shuns it as an extravagance that the family can no longer afford.

Stefan is bitter over his unemployment and the loss of the family’s savings due to bank failures. He often takes out his anger on his oldest son, Josh. One night at the dinner table, Josh asks his mother if there are any more potatoes. His father angrily scolds him, telling him that he has no right to ask for more food.

Upset over his father’s abusive treatment and the family’s lack of food, Josh decides to set out on his own. When Josh tells his friend Howie about his plans to leave Chicago, Howie says he wants to go with him. Howie suggests that they can play music to make money.

Josh’s 10-year-old brother, Joey, pleads with Josh to go with them. Josh says no at first, but with Howie’s help, Joey convinces Josh to let him accompany them. Josh describes Joey as a “golden child” whose angelic looks and sweet singing voice easily endear him to strangers. He proves an asset when the boys must resort to begging.

After receiving some advice on train hopping from a hobo, the boys board an open car of a freight train and hide, hoping the “bulls” (railroad police) won’t see them. They sleep among sacks of limes in the car. As morning nears, a bull sees them and kicks them and the other free riders off the train.

As the boys exit the train, a hostile mob of men with clubs and pitchforks approaches. The men yell at the riders to take their hungry mouths elsewhere. To escape the mob, the boys take the hobo’s advice and decide to hop back on the train when it starts moving again. Josh and Joey make it aboard safely. However, as Howie tries to board, a passenger train approaching from the opposite direction hits him and throws him down the tracks, killing him.

The grief-stricken brothers search for food, and they soon learn the one-meal rule. They receive occasional help from a soup kitchen or kind farm people, but they’re always limited to only one meal at each place—often just thin soup or broth. Joey sings for a farm couple, and the man gives them six potatoes; however, several older boys later attack them and steal their potatoes.

While hitchhiking, the boys accept a ride from a truck driver named Lonnie who’s headed to New Orleans. He tells them he had a son around Josh’s age named Davy, but he died. Lonnie takes an interest in the boys’ welfare, becoming a father figure to them. They stop at a restaurant where Lonnie knows a waitress. He suggests that Josh play the restaurant’s piano for her. The waitress is impressed and says her cousin, who runs a carnival in Baton Rouge, may want to hire Josh.

Lonnie agrees to alter his route to drop off Josh and Joey at the carnival. The carnival’s owner, Pete Harris, is impressed with Josh’s playing and hires him as a “ballyhoo” piano player for five dollars a week.

Josh and Joey get to know the carnies, including two men with dwarfism and a beautiful woman named Emily, who performs as Bongo the clown. Emily drops by Josh’s piano at the end of the night, and the two become close. Josh develops a crush on Emily, and he’s jealous when he learns that she’s engaged to Pete Harris.

Josh’s piano playing is a hit, but the gig ends after a few weeks when a wind-blown fire sweeps through the carnival grounds, destroying most of the tents and rides. Before he leaves, Josh repairs his relationship with Emily. Watching Pete comfort her after the fire, Josh sees that they’re right for each other. Since Emily is twice his age, he realizes that it was foolish to think of her as anything but a caring friend.

The boys head for Nebraska, planning to meet up with Lonnie. They hitch a ride with a man in a shiny black Cadillac, who tells them about his risky job transporting bootleg liquor. The low-level hoodlum buys them supper. When he’s ready to pay the bill, Josh agrees to exchange his ten, five, and five singles for the gangster’s $20 bill.

Later, when the boys visit a shoe store to buy overshoes for Joey, Josh hands the clerk the $20 bill. The clerk claims the bill is counterfeit and gets a local sheriff to go along with his ruse to steal the boys’ money. As they leave the shop, Josh sees a devious smile on the clerk’s face.

The boys arrive in Nebraska broke. Josh has developed a cough and fever. They ask a woman for food. She screams at them but then feels guilty and feeds them some thin soup. Joey goes begging, and someone gives him a loaf of bread. Joey gives half the loaf to the woman who gave them the soup. This angers Josh because the brothers are nearly starving. In his feverish state, Josh hits Joey and then immediately regrets it. Angered by Josh’s behavior and not realizing how ill he is, Joey takes off on his own.

A distraught and sick Josh searches for Joey. He becomes lost and can’t find the shack where they were staying. Losing his balance, he falls to the ground. Josh wakes up in a bed in Lonnie’s Omaha home. Lonnie explains to Josh that a couple found him on the side of the road. Since Josh had Lonnie’s name and address in his wallet, they contacted him. Josh gets to know Lonnie’s niece Janey while he’s recovering from pneumonia. She’s interested in politics, and the two listen to President Roosevelt’s inaugural speech together.

Josh, Janey, and Lonnie listen to a radio report about hordes of hungry children roaming the country. They realize that one of the boys rescued after a wall collapsed in a dilapidated barn is Joey. Lonnie tracks down Joey and brings him back to his house. Joey is weak but glad to see Josh. Josh hides his tears as he shakes hands with Joey.

Mrs. Arthur, a kind woman who cared for Joey for a short time after he was rescued from the barn, arranges for Josh to land a gig at a local restaurant. Josh plays the piano, and Joey sings and plays the banjo. The restaurant’s manager places a printed page in the restaurant’s menus titled “Our Wild Boys of the Road,” which tells about the boys’ struggles on their own.

Although the boys’ act is a hit with the diners, Lonnie, Janey, their parents, and Emily all advise the boys to return home to Chicago. They decide to heed the advice. For their final act, Josh plays a Polish song that’s his father’s favorite, which shows that he has taken Lonnie’s advice and forgiven his father.

Josh and Janey say their goodbyes, declaring their love for each other but also realizing that because they’re so young, things could change between them. Josh’s handling of his relationship with Janey and his willingness to forgive his father show how much he has matured during his time on his own.

The boys board a train to Chicago—this time as ticketed passengers. When they arrive in Chicago, the boys’ parents and Kitty greet them at the train station.