'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' Review

Betty Smith's coming-of-age novel still resonates with young women.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Image provided by Harper Perennial Modern Classics

Betty Smith's first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, became immediately popular when it was published in 1943. The coming-of-age story of Francie Nolan and her second-generation immigrant parents struggling to provide for their family was an instant success. Smith says she drew from her own experiences growing up in New York City for the story, and it's widely believed she is the basis for the character of Francie.

The tree of the book's title refers to the hardy Tree of Heaven which grows near the family's apartment building, despite attempts to eradicate it. It's a metaphor for Francie herself, who despite her father's alcoholism and death, her mother's hardy indifference to Francie's dreams, and the family's near-constant poverty, is determined to survive and improve her life.

The novel is divided into four books, which tell the story of how Johnny and Katie Nolan meet as teenagers, and she becomes pregnant. They marry before either of them has turned 20, and despite his charm and his good nature, Johnny is an alcoholic who can't hold a job. Katie supports the family by cleaning apartment buildings, in a reversal of traditional gender roles of the era.

Francie, for her part, enjoys learning, and idolizes her father, who shares her dreamy nature and vivid imagination. He lies to get Francie into a better school, realizing it's what will make her most happy.

Readers experience the scenes in Brooklyn from Francie's point of view, which is imbued with sensitivity and passion. She observes the neighborhood's people and events from the fire escape outside the family's apartment.

'[Francie] was all these things and of something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living from day to day"

The Significance of Family

Katie's mother, Mary Rommely, tells her to keep her heritage alive in Francie and her brother Cornelius (who is nicknamed "Neeley.") Mary tells Katie "you must tell the children the legends I told you--as my mother told them to me. You must tell the fairy tales of the old country. You must tell of those not of the earth who live forever in the hearts of people--fairies, elves, dwarfs, and such."

Perhaps the readings and the stories were not the only things that helped Francie to develop such an active imagination, but they became a part of who she was. 

Family plays a key role throughout A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with Katie digging in to provide for her family when Johnny can't, the children working after school jobs to support their mother after Johnny dies, and Francie sacrificing her savings to send her brother to school. 

The Changing Roles of Women

A particularly fascinating aspect of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is its portrayal of women as the anchors of their families, first with Katie as the Nolans' breadwinner, and later with Francie assuming the same role. This was not the typical image of women in popular culture at the time, although in post-war America, women's roles as wage earners and breadwinners was greatly changed.

There's also a troubling scene where a woman and her child born out of wedlock are stoned by other women in the neighborhood. Francie witnesses the stoning from her fire escape viewpoint, and it bothers her deeply. She wonders why women are so vicious to each other.

The heart of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, however, is the mother-daughter relationship between Katie and Francie. Katie admits to herself that she favors Neeley, but never tells Francie. Katie even saves Francie from a would-be rapist, when she shoots him in the stomach.

The two women's lack of understanding for one another, despite their obvious similarities, is one of the truest representations in American literature of this most complicated of female relationships.

Betty Smith's Love Letter to New York City

In a 1999 appreciation of the novel, writer Robert Cornfield of The New York Times writes that Smith has written what a amounts to a Dickensian portrayal of turn-of-the-century Brooklyn.

The book is a rite of passage for many young women still, he writes, even though it's more than a century old.

This is just one part of our study guide on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Please see the links below for additional helpful resources.