A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is the story of a Brooklyn girl with Irish ancestors who grows up at the beginning of the 20th century with all the hardships that come from not having enough money in the house, a drunkard for a father, and a mother who prefers her son to her daughter. Although Frances Nolan’s life is riddled with complications, she never ceases to find beautiful places and things in life—like the flower in the bowl at the library that changes with every season or the little school 12 blocks away that she dearly wants to attend.
We follow Francie from her birth to womanhood. We meet her singing father and her hardworking mother, her three aunts and her saint-like grandmother, as well as Cornelius (or “Neeley” for short), her little brother who is so favored by their mother. As Francie grows older, she realizes how poverty limits her family, and she knows she doesn’t want to grow old poor. So at the age of 14, Francie gets a job, pretending she is 16, to help bring in more money for her family.
A lot of the story’s main ideas are about life lessons, about poverty, and what it was like to be a girl, then a woman, at the beginning of the 20th century.
One of the sharper life lessons of the story is when Francie learns that not everyone appreciates the truth. She has started to write stories based on her surroundings, but her teacher does not approve. Francie used to write beautiful, made-up stories which Miss Gardner loved, but when Francie starts to write stories about drunkenness, poverty, and hunger Miss Gardner gets angry:
“You were one of my best pupils. You wrote so prettily. I enjoyed your compositions. But these last ones . . .” she flicked at them contemptuously. “. . . poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”
“What does one write about?” . . .
“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there . . . ”
Francie and the reader understand that Miss Gardner is wrong because truth is also poverty and hunger and drunkenness. This is by no means all of what truth is, but it is still truth. To say that beauty is the only truth is to only see half of reality. After this conversation with her teacher, Francie realizes for the first time that educated people might see her life as revolting.
I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn just after finishing The Chosen by Chaim Potok. The Chosen is a novel set in Brooklyn about Reuven and Danny, two Jewish boys who become best friends and have to live through the silence that Danny’s father infl icts upon Danny. It was interesting to read two books set in the same location but at different time periods. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is set around World War I, and The Chosen is set around World War II. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie walks home down Graham Avenue, and she notices everything:
She was excited by the filled pushcarts—each a little store in itself—the bargaining, emotional Jews and the peculiar smells of the neighborhood; baked stuffed fish, sour rye bread fresh from the oven, and something that smelled of honey boiling. She stared at the bearded men in their alpaca skullcaps and silkolene coats . . .
Similarly, in The Chosen, Reuven walks with Danny down the street where Danny lives. He notices how:
[T]he street throbbed with the noise of playing children who seemed in constant motion, dodging around cars, racing up and down steps, chasing after cats, climbing trees, balancing themselves as they tried walking on top of the banisters, pursuing one another in furious games of tag—all with their fringes and earlocks dancing wildly in the air and trailing out behind them.
These two passages are very similar in their description of the streets in Brooklyn, even though more than 20 years and two world wars separate the two stories. Readers get a real sense in both books of how varied and alive Brooklyn was.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is beautifully written and entrances the reader from the first page. I recommend it for mid to older teens. It is not a simple read because of the style of writing, which often includes the Brooklyn slang from the time. One example of the slang in the book is when a mean little girl spits in Francie’s face but Francie doesn’t cry. The little girl says, “Why don’t you bust out crying, you dockle? Want I should spit in your face again?” To “bust out crying” is just like to burst out crying, but “dockle” does not have a modern definition in the dictionary because it was part of the local slang in that period. I had to search a little to find any kind of meaning and finally found that a dockle is a sort of doll or bundle of thread, but, in this quote, “dockle” is clearly an insult.
It is difficult to capture the feeling of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because the way Betty Smith writes is almost otherworldly. But at the same time, the things she writes about are so realistically concrete. The following quote conveys some of the otherworldly but realistic aura of the book.
The tree whose leaf umbrellas had curled around, under and over the fi re escape, had been cut down because the housewives complained that wash on the lines got entangled in its branches . . . But the tree hadn’t died . . . it hadn’t died. A new tree had grown from the stump, and its trunk had grown along the ground until it reached a place where there were no wash lines above it. Then it started to grow towards the sky again.
This quote is both beautifully written and is an elegant metaphor for Francie’s life, as she was cut down often but also found a way around her troubles in order to grow and thrive.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is very much about a woman’s life in a man’s world, and Francie’s life represents all of the struggles and obstacles women faced. But her life also represents the beauty and achievements that brave women have lived through. I hope future readers will fi nd it as special as I did.
See also: Potok, Chaim. The Chosen.
Penguin Random House: New York,