Original Publication Date: 1943
Genres: Fiction, American Literature
Source: I purchased this book
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is an American classic about a young girl’s coming-of-age at the turn of the twentieth century. From the moment she entered the world, Francie Nolan needed to be made of stern stuff, for the often harsh life of Williamsburg demanded fortitude, precocity, and strength of spirit. Often scorned by neighbors for her family’s erratic and eccentric behavior—such as her father Johnny’s taste for alcohol and Aunt Sissy’s habit of marrying serially without the formality of divorce—no one, least of all Francie, could say that the Nolans’ life lacked drama. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the Nolans’ daily experiences are tenderly threaded with family relations and raw with honesty.
When A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was originally published in 1943, it was a huge success, and Betty Smith’s book became an instant classic. It is about several years in the life of the Nolan family in the early 20th century and it is mostly about the coming of age of the main character, Francie Nolan. It is a rare novel that can be enjoyed by both teenagers and adults.
Table of Contents
This Book Is a Classic
A strong point of the novel is its sense of place.
Smith even describes in detail the neighborhood. the neighbors and everyday life until you feel are actually in the Brooklyn of 100 years ago.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn opens by describing Brooklyn in 1912:
Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn’t fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in the summer.
The Female Characters Are Strong Women
The women are the stronger people in the book. Many of the male characters are weak-willed, while the women persevere.
Francie Nolan, the main character, is the daughter of Johnny and Katie Nolan and the sister of Neeley.
She is a fully-realized character. Francie is a strong person, who you know will do well in life.
Katie, the mother, is very hard-working. She cleans apartment buildings for a living.
She is scrubbing floors when she is in an advanced state of pregnancy.
Katie refuses anything that smacks of “charity.” One wonders what she would think of Section 8, food stamps, free school lunches, and WIC. Sometimes there is no food in the house, and the children go hungry.
Most of the Male Characters are “Weak” Men
Johnny Nolan, the father, is a singing waiter but has no steady job. He mostly works at one-shot jobs like weddings and parties.
Johnny is an alcoholic. There was little understanding or treatment of alcoholism when Smith wrote the book.
We now know that alcoholism is a disease, with both powerful psychological as well as physical components.
So even though Johnny is lovable, and really loves his children, he is perceived as weak and a loser.
Johnny comes from a long line of alcoholics; perhaps his problems were at least partially due to a genetic predisposition toward the disease.
The Main Character Is Unforgettable
Francie senses that her mother loves Neeley more than her, but she eventually comes to peace with it.
This does not mean that her mother doesn’t love her. It is partly because Neeley is reminiscent of the father and Katie does not want him to turn out the same way.
Francie is like her mother in that she is strong and smart, but she has also inherited her father’s creative ability and his dreaminess.
One of the main differences between Francie and her father is that Francie takes action, and Katie admires that.
Francie works hard at school and at her various jobs, and in improving upon her hardscrabble beginnings.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn very definitely has its own style, I think partly because it was written as a memoir and changed into a novel.
Smith obviously poured her heart into this book. Her other novels are charming, but they don’t have the depth of this book.
Because Smith could fictionalize apparently real people, she could flesh out the characters until they seem like real people, not characters in a novel. Sometimes even minor characters are given thoughts and feelings, as to how they relate to the main characters in the book.
The novel does have flaws. Some of the psychoanalyzing and character analysis is quite dated. Women are thwarted by “starved love instincts.”
However, I find the book to be mostly very strong, especially about the characterization of Francie. She is a completely realized character. You feel as if you know her.
The book takes her from an eleven-year-old child to a young woman about to leave Brooklyn and start new adventures. Even though she is going far away, she will never really leave Brooklyn behind:
She might get rid of her Brooklyn accent that way. But Francie didn’t want to get rid of it any more than she wanted to get rid of her name. It meant that she belonged someplace. She was a Brooklyn girl with a Brooklyn name and a Brooklyn accent. She didn’t want to change into a bit of this and a bit of that.
You just wish that there had been a sequel.
To read more about Brooklyn, please read my review of February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Brooklyn by Sherill Tippins.
There is an interesting article on this novel from the DePaul University Student News site:
Also a really good Medium story:
Please read my review of Tomorrow Will Be Better, the novel Betty Smith published several years after A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
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