A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a 1943 novel written by Betty Smith. The story focuses on an impoverished but aspirational, second-generation Irish-American, adolescent girl and her family in Brooklyn at the turn of the century.
It is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness. From the moment she entered the world, Francie needed to be made of stern stuff, for the often harsh life of Williamsburg demanded fortitude, precocity, and strength of spirit.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn plot
The novel is split into five “books”, each covering a different period in the characters’ lives. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn begins on a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1912 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where a tree called the Tree of Heaven grows amidst the tenement houses. Francie Nolan is eleven years old, and she and her brother are collecting junk to exchange for pennies. This particular Saturday is typical. Francie runs many errands for her mother, makes a daily trip to the library, and spends a relaxing afternoon watching her neighbors from the fire escape. Although the Nolans live in a humble apartment in a run down section of town, they fill their home with warmth and love.
Book Two jumps back to 1900, with the meeting of Johnny and Katie. Katie and her friend Hildy O’Dair worked in a factory, and Hildy dated a young boy named Johnny Nolan. When Katie first danced with Johnny, she made up her mind to endure any hardship, if she could only spend her life with Johnny. Johnny panics and begins drinking heavily when Katie becomes pregnant with first Francie and then Neeley. Katie resolves to give her children a better life than she has known, resolving to follow her mother’s insistence that they receive a good education.
Kate resents Francie because the baby is constantly ill, while Neeley is more robust. Kate makes a promise to herself that her daughter must never learn of her preference for Neeley. During the first seven years of their marriage, the Nolans are forced to move twice within Williamsburg. The Nolans then arrive at the apartment introduced in Book One.
In Book Three, the Nolans settle into their new home, and the children begin to attend the squalid, overcrowded public school next door. Her love for learning is juxtaposed with the cruelties of the teachers and other children. One day, Francie happens upon a beautiful school that she wishes she could attend. Johnny figures out a way for Francie to transfer to this kinder school, where rich children are not favored over poor children like Francie. Although she never makes many friends, school becomes a more positive place for Francie.
Growing up, Francie and Neeley enjoy all the holidays throughout the year. At this point in the book, the flashback ends, and we return to the point at which the book begins. Through many experiences, Francie loses the innocence that marks her character when the book begins. One of these experiences is the tree-throwing ritual. One Christmas, Francie and Neeley participate in an old Brooklyn tree-catching tradition. They remain standing while the biggest tree in the lot is thrown straight at them. Although they are thrilled with the thought of a Christmas tree, the reader understands the cruelty of this ritual. Especially when Katie begins to worry that her children do not even know the hardship they live in.
Another loss of innocence occurs with Francie’s run-in with a sex offender. Katie is prepared with a gun, and shoots the criminal, and Francie emerges relatively unscathed. Still, this is Francie’s first experience with sex of any kind; around this time, Francie also starts her period, and becomes more aware of the social taboos surrounding women’s sexuality.
Francie becomes more aware of her father’s problems with alcohol. As Francie grows up, Johnny comes home drunk more and more often. Little by little, he becomes more worthless as a breadwinner. Ultimately, his dismissal from the Union puts him over the edge. Also, Katie is pregnant again, which makes Johnny fall into a depression that leads to his death from alcoholism-induced pneumonia on Christmas Day 1915. Katie cashes in the family’s life insurance policies on Johnny and the children. She uses that money, along with their earnings from after-school jobs, to bury Johnny and keep the family afloat in 1916. The new baby, Annie Laurie, is born that May, and Francie graduates from grade school in June. Graduation allows Francie to finally come to terms with the reality of her father’s death.
In Book Four Francie and Neeley have to go to work the summer after eighth-grade graduation, as Katie cannot support them all. Francie starts working in a factory and then gets a job in a clippings bureau, where she reads papers from all over the country and learns about the world. One day, she and Neeley proudly present their first week’s pay to Katie. Although Francie has a good job, she desperately wants to go to high school. Unfortunately, Katie allows Neeley to go back to school instead of Francie, since they can only afford to send one. The Nolans have more money now with Francie’s job, and live more comfortably than they used to. Although Francie never does go to high school, she manages to enroll in college summer classes.
America enters World War I, and the world is changing. Technological advances allow Sissy to give birth to a live baby in a hospital. Francie’s first bout with romantic love mirrors the political and economic changes in the world. One day Francie meets a young soldier, Lee Rynor who she falls in love with in 48 hours. Lee goes home and marries his fiancée before going to war, leaving Francie with a broken heart. Eventually, Francie finds that she enjoys the company of Ben Blake a successful boy she met at summer school.
As Book Five begins in the fall of this same year, Francie, now almost 17, quits her teletype job. She is about to start classes at the University of Michigan, having passed the entrance exams with Ben’s help and is considering the possibility of a future relationship with him. The Nolans prepare for Katie’s wedding and the move from their Brooklyn apartment to McShane’s home.
Francie pays one last visit to some of her favorite childhood places. She reflects on all the people who have come and gone in her life. Francie is struck by how much of Johnny’s character lives on in Neeley. She has become a talented jazz piano player. Before she leaves the apartment, Francie notices the Tree of Heaven that has grown and re-sprouted in the building’s yard despite all efforts to destroy it, seeing in it a metaphor for her family’s ability to overcome adversity and thrive. In the habits of a neighborhood girl, Florry, Francie sees a version of her young self, sitting on the fire escape with a book and watching the young ladies of the neighborhood prepare for their dates. Francie says, “Hello, Francie”, to Florry, and then, “Goodbye, Francie”, softly, as she closes the window.
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 summer.
Late in the afternoon the sun slanted down into the mossy yard belonging to Francie Nolan’s house, and warmed the worn wooden fence. Looking at the shafted sun, Francie had that same fine feeling that came when she recalled the poem they recited in school.
The one tree in Francie’s yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts.
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. Its 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’s what Francie imagined every Saturday afternoon in summer.
Oh, what a wonderful day was Saturday in Brooklyn. Oh, how wonderful anywhere! People were paid on Saturday and it was a holiday without the rigidness of a Sunday. People had money to go out and buy things. They ate well for once, got drunk, had dates, made love and stayed up until all hours; singing, playing music, fighting and dancing because the morrow was their own free day. They could sleep late-until late mass anyhow.
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