I have been wanting to re-read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for a long time. It’s one of those books from my childhood that has stayed with me and that I often recommend to students in my class, based solely on my hazy memories of having loved it. So, now, 45 years after reading it for the first time, I have finally finished spending some more time with one of literature’s most beloved characters, Frances (Francie) Nolan.
Betty Smith’s most famous novel tells the story of young Francie, who comes of age in Brooklyn during the early part of the 20th century. She is the daughter of Katie and Johnny, and older sister to Neeley. Francie’s entire adolescence is captured in Smith’s un-embellished prose (not to say that the writing isn’t beautiful, because it is). The Nolans are poor and they live in a time where every penny counts. Katie is a hard-working janitress and Johnny a singing waiter, when he can get some work (and he often cannot). He’s a beautiful, dreamy man, who mostly drinks. It’s impossible not to love Johnny who believes “how wonderful [it would be if] everything you talked about could come true!” Francie idolizes her father and, in some way, resents her mother.
When the novel opens, Francie is just eleven. Francie and her brother are already industrious children. She and Neeley
collected rags, paper, metal, rubber, and other junk and hoarded it in locked cellar bins or in boxes hidden under the bed. All week Francie walked home from school slowly with her eyes in the gutter looking for tin foil from cigarette packages or chewing gum wrappers. This was melted in the lid of a jar.
I remember, as a kid, being fascinated with how the Nolans stretched every single penny. How the pennies Francie earned by bringing her junk to the junkman gave her the privilege of going into a store and “What a wonderful feeling to pick something up, hold it for a moment, feel its contour, run her hand over its surface [because] her nickel gave her this privilege.” I probably read this book for the first time in the early 1970s and I remember feeling awed by the fact that Francie had nothing. Although my parents weren’t rich, we were always warm and fed and Francie’s poverty was remarkable to me.
But I think what makes Francie such a remarkable and beloved character is her resilience. And her capacity for hope. Although her circumstances were often dire, she is a girl who believes in limitless possibilities and isn’t afraid to work hard to achieve them. I admire that about her. As a kid, I loved that Francie was a reader and a writer because I loved both of those things, too. When Francie read she was “at peace with the world and happy as only a little girl could be with a fine book and a little bowl of candy and all alone in the house.”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of those books that captures a simpler time. It’s anecdotal in that sometimes we have little glimpses into the lives of other characters, and there are pivotal moments in Francie’s life that are beautifully rendered. It’s also a modern book, given when it was published (1943). In one instance, after Francie meets and falls in love with a young soldier, but declines to spend some private time with him, she asks her mother if she should have gone with the young man.
As a mother, I say it would have been a terrible thing for a girl to sleep with a stranger – a man she had known for less than forty-eight hours. Horrible things might have happened to you. Your whole life might have been ruined…. But as a woman…I will tell you the truth as a woman. It would have been a very beautiful thing. Because there is only once that you love that way.
Yes, the book is dated. Yes, there are moments of racism and sexism. But it is also a time capsule. It is a full-hearted look at a time and place that no longer exists and captures the life of a girl who, like a tree growing up through the cracks in cement, reaches for the light.