Challenges / Classic Literature / Highly Recommended / Historical Fiction / New to Me Author

Review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

My Classics Club lATreeGrowsInBrooklynCoverist is a list of 50 books and authors I’ve always felt I should read, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is exactly that.  My sense is that past generations of girls had to read this book in school but not anymore.  And if I’m being honest, if a teacher had made me read this book because I was a girl, like Jane Eyre, it would have earned my eternal resentment.

And yet, this was an amazing novel that really immersed me in a different time and place.  And it’s cool to know that generations of women (at least the last few) have been reading this book.

The book was published in the 40s but takes place mostly from about 1912 to 1917.  It shows the U.S. on the cusp of World War I, but also on the cusp of electricity, women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and other changes.  It’s a big story but also a very small story.  It’s the story of Frances Nolan, a girl growing up in poverty with her mother, father, and brother in Brooklyn.  It’s about children sent to sell junk for pennies and haggle with the baker for an extra loaf of stale bread. It’s about picking out penny candy and watching the neighborhood girls dress up to go out on Saturday night.

Francie is eleven when the book begins.  She’s smart, reads a book every day from the library, but struggles in a school with abusive teachers.  Her mother, Katie, works endlessly scrubbing floors and cleaning houses to keep the family alive.  Her father, Johnny, is charismatic, a talented singer, and really understands Frances – unfortunately he’s also an alcoholic who barely works and drinks away all his tip money.  One of the things Frances struggles with is the mother she doesn’t like, who is clearly the better role model but doesn’t have time for affection.  Katie also shows a clear preference for Frances’ brother Neeley, while Johnny adores his daughter.

The title refers to a tree growing outside Francie’s house that grows despite people trying to cut it down.  It grows where it isn’t wanted, on the rough sidewalks of Brooklyn where nothing else grows.  It’s a symbol of strength and perseverance.  Smith’s lack of subtlety here can be forgiven due to the complexity of the rest of the book.  Also the tree is seen through the eyes of young Francie, and I can remember doing the exact same thing when I was her age (romanticizing stars, birds, trees, etc.).

You took a walk on a Sunday afternoon and came to a nice neighborhood, very refined.  You saw a small one of these trees through the iron gate leading to someone’s yard and you knew that soon that section of Brooklyn would get to be a tenement district.  The tree knew.  It came there first.  Afterwards, poor foreigners seeped in and the quiet old brownstone houses were hacked up into flats, feather beds were pushed out on the window sills to air and the Tree of Heaven flourished.  That was the kind of tree it was.  It liked poor people.

That was the kind of tree in Francie’s yard.  It’s umbrellas curled over, around and under her third-floor fire escape.  An eleven-year-old girl sitting on this fire escape could imagine that she was living in a tree.  That was what Francie imagined every Saturday afternoon in summer.

Francie’s grandparents are Austrian and Irish, and her story is that of many children growing up in the U.S. at this time. I felt like I could see my grandparents growing up in this world, except that my family was Jewish and being Jewish in America in the 1910s may have been a very different experience.  Also, my grandparents were much more recent immigrants to the U.S. than the Nolans.

And the child, Francie Nolan, was of all the Rommelys and all the Nolans… She had Johnny’s sentimentality without his good looks.  She had all of Katie’s soft ways and only half of the invisible steel of Katie.  She was made up of all these good and these bad things.  She was made up of more, too.  She was the books she read in the library.  She was the flower in the brown bowl.  Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard.  She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly.  She was Katie’s secret, despairing weeping.  She was the shame of her father staggering home drunk.  She was all of these things and something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living day to day.  It was something that had been born into her and her only – the something different from anyone else in the two families.

We see the small aspects of Francie’s daily life as well as the big issues of war, religious and class intolerance, poverty, and illness.  But there’s happiness amidst all the suffering.  Francie is genuinely loved by her family despite their troubles.  She and her brother have a close relationship and she takes great pleasure in her daily trip to the library.

Smith writes about female sexuality in a way that’s pretty blunt and I wonder if it shocked at the time it was written, or even decades later.  She writes about women who enjoy sex but doesn’t ignore the consequences.  Francie grows up in a world where most girls don’t know much about sex, but her mother works too hard to hide the realities of life from her daughter.

I also liked how women are portrayed in this book not as saints or as villains, but as unique individuals.  Of course that’s the mark of good writing, but it can be hard to find literature with such strong female characters.  The women in this book struggle to keep their families together, but they are all different and all have faults.  Francie’s mother struggles to relate to her daughter; her beloved Aunt Sissy is at times irresponsible and struggles to stay in relationships.  Evy is a more distant aunt but still there for her family.  Francie’s grandmother Mary may be the closest to a saint-like character in the book who serves as a guide to her three daughters.

I don’t think this book should be viewed as a book for girls or women, even though I know it is.  I suppose the male characters aren’t nearly as strong as the women.  But the themes of this book are universal.  I’m curious if any men out there have read it and what they thought.

This is a pretty long book, written at a slow-moving pace, but I didn’t mind that.  I found it hard to put down.  Francie is such a great heroine — smart, ambitious, tough, caring — I couldn’t wait to see how she turned out.

11 thoughts on “Review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

    • Andi, it is slow-paced but really worth it. Francie is such a great character. And for me the pace worked after a while, because you see her growing up and you almost want her to stay a child — but at the same time you really want her to succeed.

  1. I just read this book for the first time last summer, but it’s already one of my favorites. I love how it portrays hardship and hope, and the ability to rise above one’s surroundings. I also agree with you about how nice it is to see really strong female characters! Even though Katie didn’t have much time for affection for Francie, it’s hard not to admire her for her hard work and insistence upon her childrens’ education. The other female characters felt similarly balanced. Great review!

    • Thanks for the comment! I agree that the characters felt really balanced. Katie tries so hard to do what’s best for her children, she’s sympathetic even though Francie can’t feel close to her.

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  3. I’m a male, and I have never read another novel which made me feel the way this one does. Throughout the whole time I was reading it, there was this unnameable, undescribable feeling flowing through me. Not nostalgia, nor sadness, nor hope. Maybe a mixture of those three and more? It gave me goosebumps of the best kind, and made my blood thrill and skin tingle. Although I am not American myself, nor have I ever been to Brooklyn, by the end of the book I was yearning to see it and to feel for it what Francie does. It’s just that powerful, that beautiful a book. It’ll always be part of me, and that’s the way it should be.

    • Wow, that’s wonderful to hear that the book had that kind of impact on you. I loved this book but there are other books that I would describe the way you just did. That’s what makes reading so powerful, I think. You shouldn’t be able to relate to a book like this, maybe, but you did.

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