A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)

by Betty Smith

The difference between an escapist novel and one with a credibly hopeful resolution of a long struggle is apparent in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It is not a rosy, sentimental portrayal of the poor in early-20th-century Brooklyn. Poverty, alcoholism, sexual assault, stillbirths, and death are among the trials the Nolan family and their relatives endure.

The protagonist is the oldest Nolan child, Francie, who is 11 when the book opens. Francie and brother Neeley, a year younger, and their parents live in a tenement apartment in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section, inhabited at the beginning of the 20th century by immigrants and their bottom-of-the-ladder offspring. Johnny, the father, is charming but unreliable; he works part-time as a singing waiter and drinks too much. Katie, a tough but devoted wife and mother, is the family's main support as a janitor for three tenement buildings. The Nolans live on the verge of starvation; they survive on stale bread, condensed milk, onions, potatoes, and coffee.

Francie Nolan has challenges beyond poverty. An observant bookworm, she doesn't make friends easily. Her mother cares for her, but Francie knows that Katie cares more for Neeley. When it's time for high school, only one child can stay in school, and it's Francie who must go to work. But Francie has brains and mettle; she takes summer college courses without a high school diploma and, when the family fortunes improve at the end of the book, is accepted by the University of Michigan.

This is a finely detailed recollection of a time and place by author Betty Smith, who grew up the daughter of poor immigrants in pre–World War I Williamsburg. Smith's plainspoken prose style perfectly suits this honest,
moving story of a family and its determination to survive  — just like the invincible tree growing under its third-floor fire escape.


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