What happens when the normal functions of society breakdown within a family unit? Anzia Yezierska explores this idea in her first novel Bread Givers. Critics agree that this is a semi-autobiographical book for Yezierska, with Sara most likely being her fictional proxy. In the Smolinsky family, the four daughters are the family bread winners, leaving their lazy father home to do whatever he sees fit. The oldest looks to the youngest for direction, and the entire family order is reversed. It's a story of failed fatherhood and its far-reaching effects into adulthood.
Reb Smolinsky is a studious Jew, spending his days reading the holy books and attending synagogue. Unfortunately for his daughters this means they are all called upon to support the family, despite their youth and personal aspirations. Their mother laments their lot in life, but she is powerless to defy their father. The girls, who are the most influential members of the family, submit to their father because that's what they've been taught is the correct attitude, although none of them believe this is the way things should happen.
As various suitors are introduced to the girls, they begin to fall in love. Reb recognizes the danger to his own lifestyle and tries to shut down each advance before his daughters can marry. Most importantly he demands that any man who wants to marry one of his daughters pay for the entire wedding and a dowry and prove a satisfactory income. Bottom line is Reb doesn't want to lose the income of any one of the four, so he tries to sabotage their relationships. All but Sara eventually do marry, but their choices were limited and they soon find themselves miserable. They struggle with poverty and beatings and cheating husbands.
Only Sara is left at home with her aging parents when her mom dies. The two women had been desperately holding the family together, working themselves silly. Unwilling to lift a finger, Reb becomes emotionally abusive and critical of their best efforts. Perhaps in his old age he recognizes his failure to provide for his family, but he's in too deep so he takes out his fury and anger at himself out on his wife and daughter. Sara finally reaches the end of her patience and runs away to make her own path in life.
Sara finds ways to provide for herself as she's been a hustler her entire life. She checks in with her sisters, but they aren't doing well. She's on her own. None of ther family members agree with her choice to not marry and despise her for surviving independently. When she receives word of her mother's impending death, Sara rushes home full of regret. Should she have stayed with her parents to provide for them? She feels guilty for leaving her miserable mom alone with that hateful old man she calls a husband. After her mom dies, Sara is outraged that her dad immediately remarries.
Catching a break, Sara makes it into college and continues to work her way through school. Her stepmother comes knocking, demanding that she help support her young step siblings. As can be imagined, Sara slams the door in her face. Her father disowned her long ago for running away anyway. In response, her stepmom writes a defaming letter to Sara's school principle, Hugo. By a strange twist of fate he's touched by the letter and reaches out to Sara. A beautiful friendship buds and develops into a marriage. Finally having broken from the cycle of poverty which she was born into, Sara's hard work pays off. Despite the formidable disadvantages which her family imposed on her, Sara makes her own path in life and achieves her dreams. This is a touching look into Yezierska's own life experiences and her views of work.