A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is a somewhat biographical coming-of-age story about living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Mary Frances Nolan – Francie – is the central character and I was addicted to her from the start. I was surprised at how quickly I became fascinated with Francie. As a young girl Francie is keenly observant, and sensitive to the beauty of her world. Maybe I see myself in her. All I know is this was a book that was hard to put down.
“There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly . . . survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.” – Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
At the opening Francie is 11 years old. She is the oldest child of Katie and Johnny Nolan. Her brother, Neeley (short for Cornelius) is 10. We are given a tour of their neighborhood as Francie runs errand for her mother, takes her daily trip to the library and watches her neighbors from the fire escape. We find out that Katie cleans houses in exchange for free rent of their apartment, and Johnny has unreliable income through waiting tables and singing.
The story then flashes back to the summer of 1900 when Katie and Johnny first meet. Katie decides she will go through any hardship just to be with Johnny when they first dance together. Within six months they are married and support themselves by working as janitors at a school. Stress begins to set in when Francie is born in December 1901 and Neeley just a year and a week later. As the stress of living in poverty and having children eats away at Johnny, he begins drinking.
Katie and Johnny are both second generation Americans. Katie’s family is a line of strong women from Austria. She has two older sisters, Sissy and Evy. Johnny, with Irish heritage, comes from a family of weak, yet talented men (he has three brothers).
Neeley and Francie start school the same year, though they are a year apart in age. Francie, a lover of learning, always looked forward to the day she could go to school but finds it to be cruel and harsh. She changes to a school where there is no discrimination against poor children, though she still makes no friends. The flashback then catches up with the beginning of the story.
The plot line continues with various events throughout Francie’s childhood. Francie’s first encounter with sex of any kind occurs around the age of 12. She comes face to face with the sex offender who has been terrorizing the neighborhood. Her mother saves her and Francie emerges relatively unscathed. Francie starts her period around this time and witnesses women of the neighborhood stoning a young girl because she became pregnant out of wedlock. This leads Francie to become more aware of the social taboos surrounding women and sexuality.
Francie gradually sees her father’s problem with alcohol, which worsens as she grows up. He is set over the edge when he is dismissed from the Union. When Johnny discovers Katie is pregnant again he weakens further and finally dies of pneumonia (and alcoholism) on Christmas Day, five months before Annie Laurie is born.
Johnny’s death changes Francie. She stops believing in God after a lifetime of Catholic faith. She stops writing the flowery compositions that had no relation to her life experiences but earned her high marks in English, replacing them with “sordid” compositions about her father, which concerned her teacher.
Francie’s sensitive and caring nature is lost as she becomes more and more like her mother. Katie was once romantic and flighty, but turns hard and determined as she takes on the burden of earning money and sacrifices “luxuries,” such as heat and meals, for her family.
After graduating from eighth grade, both Neeley and Francie must work because Katie cannot afford to keep them in school. Francie starts working at a factory then moves to a clippings bureau where she reads newspapers all day, learns about the world outside of Brooklyn, and desperately awaits the day she can return to high school.
Unfortunately Katie, who can only afford to send one child back to school, sends Neeley instead of Francie. Although Francie never returns to high school she does take summer college courses and with Francie’s job the Nolans are able to live more comfortably.
When the United States of America enters World War I, Francie first experiences romantic love. It comes in the form of Lee Rynor, whom she falls in love with within the first 48 hours after meeting. He leaves Francie heartbroken when he marries his fiancée before heading off to war. Then Francie discovers that she enjoys the company of Ben Blake, a boy she met in summer school.
Officer McShane, a kind older man who has admired Katie from afar (and she him), asks Katie to marry him. He says he will make it possible for Laurie to grow up without hardship in exchange for the chance to be her father. He also gives Francie and Neeley a chance to go to college. Francie gets ready to attend college at the University of Michigan with Ben and the Tree of Heaven continues to grow in her backyard.
Themes and Patterns
Poverty is major themes throughout this story. Nearly every anecdote and character deals with poverty in some way. Poverty applies not only to a lack of food and heat but also results in the growing worthlessness of Johnny and ultimately his death. Resources are limited, people are exploited, but poverty is presented as the evil, not people. Everyone is thinking of his or her own family first.
Class is another theme that Smith often shows through encounters between the lower class and people of privilege. Having money may lead to an easier life but the lovable characters are those who are or once were impoverished. The rich doctor who vaccinates Francie is presented as a villain and Francie’s English teacher, who claims to have grown up with hardship, misunderstands Francie’s compositions. Neeley and Francie pity Laurie for growing up with privilege because she will not have as much fun.
A prominent theme in this book is education. Johnny, Katie and Mary Rommely (Katie’s mother) have very different personalities, but they can all agree on one thing: education is the way out for the Nolan children. Through a combination of schooling and life lessons they lead the children out of poverty; each generation receives more education than the last.
Gender roles stands out to me as a further theme. Mary Rommely states upon the birth of Francie, “to be born a woman is to be born into a humble life of pain.” This comment can be applied to both life’s pains and the pain of childbirth. Women of all faiths and socioeconomic backgrounds experience the same pain in labor. However, all the women in this book are more than equipped to handle these pains and depicted as strong while men are generally shown as the weaker sex.
Katie and Johnny are presented with the same life choices and Katie is determined to give opportunities to her children in the face of hardship while Johnny slips into a drunken dreamworld. Francie is more eager to return to school but Katie send Neeley because both women understand that Neeley would not find a way to go back where Francie will do whatever it takes to learn more at school. Aunt Evy is independent and tough and Uncle Flittman is inadequate.
Since this is a coming-of-age tale it is only natural that a fall from innocence would be not only a theme but a motif. Francie learns more and more about the world, poverty, class, status, gender, and sex, which in turn causes her to become less and less innocent. Her appreciation of small material things as a young girl turns into her realization of their hardships. Often Francie presents her fall from innocence as feeling as if she is dreaming.
The “fall” refers to both things that brought Francie pain and things that brought her knowledge. The Tree of Heaven can be viewed as a Tree of Knowledge. The tree grows up and out of very difficult situations in the same way that Francie learns through reading and life events in order to get out of poverty.
Tree of Heaven
This symbol is most interesting to me, perhaps because I love trees so much or perhaps because the idea is appealing. The tree in the title grows only in tenement districts, because it “likes poor people.” It represents perseverance in times of hardship. When Francie is born, Katie likens her life to the tree’s: Francie will keep living no matter how sick she becomes. All over Brooklyn this tree grows where no other can and out-competes those that do. When the Nolans have a fir on their fire escape they care for it with water and manure but it dies. The Tree of Heaven that grows from the concrete in their yard was cut down and a new one grew out of it’s trunk.
The tree is abundant throughout Brooklyn and is familiar to Francie, who sees it every day. It isn’t stately like the sea or mountains majesty. It is humble, and this humility makes it all the more powerful.
When Francie leaves Brooklyn, Florrie Wendy symbolically takes her place. The tree grew for Francie, it will grow for Florrie, too, as it must have for Flossie Gaddis before Francie.
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Do you agree with my analysis? What themes do you find in this story?