Smith, B. (1943). A tree grows in Brooklyn. New York: Harper Collins. Audiobook.
A classic coming of age story at the turn of the century in Brooklyn. This is the story of Francie Nolan, a girl made up of all of the good and bad parts of her parents, Katie and Johnny Nolan, plus something that is all her own, that which makes her Francie. The smooth pace and rhythm of this novel transport the reader into Brooklyn’s immigrant slums, with all of the joy, sorrow and hope that first and second generation immigrants carried with them as they made their way in their new home.
This story is broken into five parts, telling the story of the Rommely-Nolan family, with Francie Nolan, who is 11 at the start of the novel, as the main protagonist. Francie and her brother, Neely, collect scraps and bits of metal from the neighborhood in exchange for some pennies from the junk man, have the pennies go into the tin can bank in the closet and the other half are divided between the two children.
Francie and Neely’s parents are Johnny and Katie Nolan. Johnny is of Irish heritage and Katie German, and Francie is incredibly proud of the fact that her parents are some of the few that were born in the county. Johnny makes a living as a singing-waiter and Katie cleans the building that they live in exchange for rent, the family is incredibly poor and the neighbors whisper that Johnny is a good for nothing and a drunk, forcing his beautiful wife to work so hard to support his habit.
In the second part of the novel we are acquainted with the story of Katie and Johnny’s courtship. When Katie was 17 and Johnny was 19 Katie worked in a factory with her best friend whose beau was Johnny. After a disastrous double-date in which Katie’s date was a slobbering oaf, Katie decides to steal Johnny away from her friend and makes a habit of getting out of work just a few minutes early to talk to Johnny alone before her friend Hildy can meet him. Eventually Johnny tells Hildy that Katie is his girl now and that they should go their separate ways. Hildy is heart broken, but four months later Katie and Johnny are married and little Francie soon follows. Neely is born a mere fourteen months after his sister, and Johnny turns to the bottle, feeling so young and trapped with his wife and two children.
Throughout the novel it is clear that Francie worships her father, making his discent into alcoholism especially painful to witness. The two share a special bond though, as demonstrated by his effort to get Francie into a better elementary school. When Francie start school she goes to the neighborhood school near her flat, but it’s a miserable place packed full of children, where the teachers play favorites and Francie has to share a desk in the back corner of the room. On a walk one day she discovered a beautiful school in an area of Brooklyn she’s never been to before. She takes her father to the school and he tells Francie that they can pick out a nice house to take down the street address of so that she can transfer to the new school, but that she must work very hard and always be a good girl so that she never gets any mail sent home and draws attention to their deceit.
As Francie grows older she becomes more and more aware of her father’s problem with alcohol. She keep a journal in which she refers to “papa coming home sick” for a several month strand, later sharing that Katie found her journal and made her cross out drunk and replace with it with sick. This is the begin of the end of Francie’s innocence. Awareness of her father’s drunkenness, combined with a terrifying assault in the stairwell of her flat usher Frannie firmly into adulthood. It is not too much longer before Francie and Neely have to obtain work to help Katie Nolan make ends meet. The family is so poor that one of the children has to work through the school year and Francie has to give up her dream of high school in order to help support the family.
Despite the rough times the Nolan’s have faced throughout, the book ends on a happy note. True love is found and dreams come true. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of one immigrant family that worked themselves near to death, saw more misfortune and hungry nights than anyone ought to, but never stopped trying to work toward a better future, which is exactly what they got.
It was really hard for me to get into this novel. I’m ashamed, because A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is everyone’s favorite book, it’s a fine example of The Great American Novel and anyone who cares anything about literature ought to love it. The thing about that is that I know it’s good, I appreciate it for all that it’s done for the genre and love the Betty Smith, a woman, was able to publish this book, which handles some very difficult topics, in 1943. In fact that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was published by a woman in 1943 to critical acclaim kind of blows my mind. All that said though, I do not think I could have made it through this book if I hadn’t been listening to it on audio book. There is something about the cadence of the language in the novel that I find incredibly boring, so much so that it was even really hard for me to write a plot summary, because even though a ton of stuff happened and some of it was even laugh out loud funny, I just couldn’t bear to go through all that dull stuff all over again. So beware! I’m a huge fan of classic literature, I loved Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Chrome Yellow and The House of Mirth, but I could barely make it through this beloved story.
Betty Smith was a playwright and novelist from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the location of her first novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Smith was born to German immigrant parents and only educated through elementary school. She was married, but left her husband and raised their two children. When her kids were old enough Smith returned to school herself and studied at the University of Michigan where she began her career as a playwright. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was first published in 1943 to wild, country-wide, acclaim.
Young Adult Fiction, Coming of Age, Immigrant Families, Historical Fiction, New York
Grades 11 and 12 literary response and analysis curriculum:
Analyze recognized works of American literature representing a variety of genres and traditions
How does A Tree Grows in Brooklyn compare to other great American novels? What are some of the similarities between Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird, and Francie?
Reading Level/Interest Age
This novel is American classic. The life that the Nolan’s live is hard one, and it’s undeniable that Johnny Nolan’s demise is from the result of alcoholism, nor could you argue that Sissy didn’t work in factory making sex toys (or condoms, I’m not sure which). That doesn’t take away from this novel’s value though, this is a rare picture of what life looked like for so many of the Americans who immigrated through Ellis Island, and it’s value as a piece of American history far outweighs any arguements one may against it.
Reason for inclusion
I included this novel because it’s an important part of American heritage.
Smith, Betty (Wehner) (1904-1972). Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature. George B. Perkins, Barbara Perkins, and Phillip Leininger. Vol. 1. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. 986. Literature Resource Center. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.
Betty (Wehner) Smith. Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2001. Literature Resource Center. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.