A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a truly beautiful book about the pleasures and pains of growing up in turn of the century Brooklyn, living in poverty amongst a largely immigrant community. I first read this book in my early teens, and I raced through it, loving the descriptions of life in a place I had not yet been. The image that most stuck in my mind was of Francie Nolan’s ability to see into all of the other crowded tenement windows, and how she would watch the young girls getting ready for their dates, washing at their sinks, their arms bent gracefully, ballerina like, over their heads. That sense of yearning to be a grown up, of romanticizing the adult experiences you see around you and don’t yet fully understand the meaning of, of feeling small and insignificant and that real life is passing you by, were very real to me at the time, and I think that’s why I remember that image of the bended arms so vividly. I would watch my older sister get ready to go out with her boyfriends and friends and long to be going with her, to be old enough to have that independent life. I completely identified with Francie when I first read it; she loved to read, like me, going to the library was one of her chiefest pleasures, she was imaginative, ambitious, and longed to be a writer.  Despite not growing up in poverty in Brooklyn, I felt Francie and I could have been one and the same, and that sense of kinship with Francie meant the book stayed with me as a favourite from my childhood, though I remembered little of the actual plot. So, when Nicola wrote about it a few weeks ago, I knew I had to reread this book while I was here in New York, and had finally walked the Brooklyn streets Francie called home.

The Nolan family live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and when the book opens, it is 1912. Today Williamsburg is an uber trendy neighbourhood filled with vintage stores, flea markets and organic cafes, and populated by young professionals and ‘hipsters’. Though it still retains a gritty, industrial quality, the rent is sky high and new, smart apartment buildings are springing up all over the place. However, in 1912, Williamsburg was a largely immigrant neighbourhood, filled with tenement buildings and desperately poor families struggling to make ends meet. Francie’s young parents, Katie and Johnny, work all the hours they can to keep a roof over their children’s heads and food on the table. Katie married Johnny at 17, and had Francie and her younger brother Neeley quickly afterwards. Beautiful, vivacious, driven and self assured, she is the rock of the family and has surrendered all of her dreams and ambitions in order to provide the best chance in life possible for her children. Johnny is handsome, dashing, a talented performer and the life and soul of the party, but he is also prone to depression and alcoholism, and cannot hold down a steady job. While he adores Katie and their children, he is also resentful of them and the way they have tethered him to a life of grinding poverty he always wanted to escape from, and his freqent alcoholic binges are coupled with terrible emotional scenes where he bemoans his life, often in front of his children.

The story of the Nolan’s life is told through the eyes of Francie, their oldest child, and an incredibly intelligent, ambitious and curious girl who sees the beauty of the world around her, treasures her family and takes delight in the small pleasures that brighten her often discouraging and difficult life. The highlight of her week is her Saturday visits to the library; she has decided to read all the books there are, starting with A, and on Saturdays she treats herself to an extra book that she really wants to read, rushing home to sit on the fire escape and immerse herself in a fantasy world. She loves school and writing compositions; she loves spending time with her lively and daring Aunt Sissy; she loves gathering junk and hauling it down to the junk shop with Neeley, where they get paid a nickel and can then go to the sweetshop and buy treats; she loves sitting on the fire escape and watching the world go by, imagining what she could do if she had a different life.

Childhood is short in Brooklyn, and innocence is not long maintained; Francie is well aware of the immense poverty her family are living in, and of how hard her lovely young mother has to work in order to make ends meet, especially when Johnny is ‘sick’ and cannot work. She knows that her mother doesn’t love her as much as she loves Neeley, her golden boy, and she knows that Johnny drinks to drown his sorrows and would rather not have the responsibility of her and her brother on his shoulders. She sees the sadness and bitterness of her neighbours and how monotonous their lives are. But what makes Francie different is that she has hope; like the tree that miraculously straggles its way up towards the sunlight in the scrabbly front yard of her tenement building, she knows that there is more to life than this, that dreams can come true, and that if she works and tries hard enough, she too can reach the sunlight of a world far removed from the dirty, poverty stricken streets of Williamsburg.

Tragedy strikes the Nolans and Francie struggles to make her dreams come true, but Katie’s determination to see her children get educated and leave behind the dingy tenement rooms that she had to bring them up in ensures that both Francie and Neeley have opportunities that she and Johnny could never have dreamed of for themselves. In the novel, the women are the strong ones; they bear child after child, they make sure enough money is put by for unexpected expenses, they go out and work in the mornings and evenings to keep food on the table when their husbands fail them, they think up a myriad of recipes for the most basic of foodstuffs, and they raise their children to believe in a life outside of the tenements. Katie reads a page of the Bible and a page of Shakespeare to Francie and Neeley every day, and works her fingers to the bone to give them piano lessons and the chance to graduate from High School. Katie’s sisters, Evy and Sissy, are independent, intelligent, forthright women, who dominate their husbands and fly in the face of societal expectations to drag their families out of the gutter. No matter what happens, Francie knows her mother and aunts will not let anything bad happen to her; something she can’t trust her father to provide, though she loves him passionately.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn demonstrates the power of hope and determination, and that the circumstances of your upbringing don’t have to dictate your future.  Francie just gets on with things; she believes in herself and her abilities, and doesn’t take no for an answer. She works hard and takes every opportunity she can get to better herself. She resists the temptation to dwell on the sadnesses and deprivations of her life, and never becomes bitter; she believes in her mother’s edict that life is what you make of it, and she is determined to make hers a success. The supporting cast of characters in Francie’s life are also wonderfully and tenderly depicted, and Williamsburg, with its tenement and brownstone lined streets, its shady parks, its variety of specialist shops catering to the immigrant population, its sidewalks thronging with ragged children playing games, its tenement buildings crowded with poor families struggling to make ends meet, comes vibrantly to life on the pages. The multitude of vignettes of life in Brooklyn that Smith portrays are really just so lovely, and it was humbling and fascinating to learn more about how life was lived and how so many people struggled and strived one hundred years ago to make a better life for future generations. Something I found particularly interesting was how separate Brooklyn and New York used to be; even in her late teens, Francie has never even crossed the Williamsburg Bridge to downtown Manhattan; like Eilish in Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, Manhattan is an almost mythical land across the river that doesn’t feature in their every day lives. Brooklyn was very much a contained, self sufficient community at the turn of the century, something I had not realised before reading this.

You don’t have to have an especial interest in New York to enjoy this; it’s an absolutely beautiful, inspiring book about the tenacity of the human spirit and the possibility of dreams, and I adored every second of reading it. It’s so rich, so vibrant, so full of life and hope and joy. If you haven’t read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn already, make it a priority! It is truly one of my favourite books, and I am so glad that the treasured memories I have of my first reading have endured a second one.

Also: the winner of The Storm at the Door is LIZ: please email me with your address!

23 comments

  1. The Christmas tree throwing chapter was a favorite holiday read-aloud in our home growing up. Still makes me smile.

  2. I remember absolutely loving this book! My grandfather and father were both born in Williamsburg, in the 20’s and 40’s respectively. He couldn’t wait to get out of there, but he said that even though it was like the slums, he said there was something magical about growing up there.

    It cracks me up to walking past their houses on North 5th street and see boutiques and imagine my grandpa and his brothers playing on the streets lined with the original butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.

    (I loved when the neighbor “delivered” her baby)

    1. Wow, what great family history! It’s hard to find born and bred New Yorkers these days. I’d love to hear their memories.

      I know – Williamsburg must be completely unrecognisable now to the way it was before the hipsters started moving in.

      Can you imagine?! Listening to the screams was the worst part!

  3. Oh, Rachel, you have so beautifully captured “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and transported me back into the book with your wonderful writing. I love this book each time I read it, and, as has been discussed on your blog before, Francie’s story takes on different meanings each time the book is picked up.

    You really must read “I Remember Mama” by Kathryn Forbes, which is autobiographical and takes the reader to the immigrant experience of Forbes family at the turn of the century in San Francisco.

    I’m so pleased that you enjoyed your reread of this book.

    1. Oh thank you Penny! How kind you are.🙂 I am so glad this is such a favourite of yours – I think a book like this says a lot about the people who read it and love it.

      I will remember that recommendation, thank you. I haven’t read much about life on the West coast and I am very interested to find out more!

  4. Rachel, if I hadn’t recently read and loved a Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I’d want to now, after your wonderful (as always!) review! But I know I’ll reread it – probably quite often! One terrible thing has remained with me, though. The young bride, whom Francie hears through the wall, crying all night after her brutal husband has had sex with her. No escape for her, I fear.

    How fascinating to be able to see Williamsburg as it is now. Did you take any photographs?

    I haven’t read the book ‘I Remember Mama’, recommended by ‘the other Penny’.🙂 I know and love the film, though. Try to get hold of it, if you can. It’s an oldie, but is available on DVD.

    1. Well thank you, Penny! I would have guessed you’d already have read and loved this – we always seem to be kindred spirits when it comes to our reading! Yes that was terribly sad – so many of the lives in the book were sad and I worried for their futures. Not everyone had the strength of mind and determination of the Nolans, unfortunately.

      Oh yes, plenty! I am going to do a post all about it – watch this space!

      Oh ok – I will certainly do my best to track down both book and film!

      1. I love the movie too, Penny, and it might be easier to obtain than the book. I first knew the story from television as a little girl, then the movie, then the book. Loved them all, Rachel. A wonderful time no matter how you experience it.

  5. What a great review! I too read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” as a child, but didn’t enjoy it as much as you did. I’ve never been tempted to read it again, despite my mother’s urgings, but now you’ve convinced me to try again!

    1. I’m sad you didn’t enjoy this as much as I did! But reading it later in life, you do get more from it, I promise. I hope you’ll give it another go!

  6. Francie is a girl after my own heart wanting to read all of the books at the library. You absolutely did have to read this again while you’re in the neighbourhood. Imagining what places feel like is wonderful escapism but knowing is something completely different.

    When you read stories about these poor children living in miserable surroundings and not able to achieve their potential don’t you just want to reach through the pages and save them!? Lovely review!

    1. Absolutely! I loved reading it and being able to picture the streets and what the tenement building rooms must have looked like. Having my own fire escape made reading about Francie’s extra special, too!

      Yes I do, Darlene! It breaks my heart!

  7. It wasn’t Francie’s time period obviously; however, I grew up in a similar type of neighborhood 200 mi. southwest of Brooklyn. When I first read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, I was an adult and was transported back to the images of my own childhood in the early 1970s. What I find interesting is how Smith paints the women to be so strong. It is seen over and over again in American Literature that men are weaker, even in literature written by men. I believe WWI had something to do with that; however, and it is unfortunate to say as I’ve experienced this kind of let down more than once in my life, our culture does nothing to nurture men to be strong enough to lead a family. Wow, that is a blanket statement if ever there was one! Sorry, I mean no offense; however, we are a bold, idiosyncratic society when it comes to our literature…why would that image be painted over and over again if there wasn’t some truth behind it?

    1. Tina I do agree with you – I have seen a real pattern of this across the books I’ve read this year. It definitely seems to be the women who are the backbone of their families and the backbone of America as a result – they bring up the children and provide the safe, loving and supportive home environment that goes on to produce generations stronger than the ones before. I think there probably is a lot of truth behind it – men have always died younger than women and in a time when a lot of men had back breaking jobs on the land or in factories, the women had to be there to pick up the pieces and do the work of the home and of producing an income when their husbands became incapacitated, as they frequently did, or died. I read of a lot of widows, but not a lot of widowers, after all. So women became this symbol of strength and tenacity and reliability and I think that’s a wonderful legacy to read about in this country’s literature. Nothing to apologise for noticing at all!

  8. Dear Rachel, you were destimed to move to the US, however temporarily, so that you can put a place to the words. Another eloquent, evocative review from you. Thanks so much

  9. Hello, I just discovered your blog. I read this book after I was given a copy when I was about 12. Loved it and am planning on re-reading it very soon. Apparently Betty Smith based it on her own life, but disguised it somewhat because she was from a German background. Have you read any of her other books like Maggie Now?

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