Sunday, October 27, 2019

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has been on my “to read” list the last few years as it keeps popping up on lists of classics that are must reads.  After this novel was voted #13 on the PBS Great American Read last year, I knew I needed to read it.  I chose it as the October pick for the Kewaunee Library Back to the Classics Book club and it was also chosen for my Rogue Book club (aka FLICKS Book and Movie Club) for this month as well.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of Francie Nolan and her family.  She grows up in the tenements in Brooklyn and yearns to be educated.  She reads a book every day from the library and is determined to read them all.  Her brother Neeley and herself struggle to survive and collect scrapes and other items to try to get food to survive. Their mother Katie is a hardworking woman who cleans three tenement buildings to give them somewhere to live.  Their father, Johnny, is a dreamer who works as a singing waiter, but drinks away most of his income.  Will Francie be able to work her way to a better life?

This novel is a book that you don’t read fast for the action, it’s a book that you read slowly to enjoy the beauty of the writing and a look into the past that you don’t usually see.  Books tend to focus on the middle and upper class, and it is the rare book that actually delves into how hard life was if you were living in poverty.  What the kids had to eat and their lack of food was really sad.  I felt bad for Katie.  Johnny was the fun parent, but Katie kept it together and tried to make fun games so that her kids didn’t know what they were missing.  She did not receive the same love from Francie that Johnny did. 

The novel also takes a realistic look at alcoholism and its real impact on the family.  Johnny is a likeable guy, but I liked how people’s perceptions of him changed when they realized the hungry kids next to him were his own kids.  He was in the thralls of the disease of alcoholism and he couldn’t figure out to get out.  This book did not sugar coat the impact it had on him and his family.

The book did not have a straight forward narrative and had different sections that skipped around between 1912 when Francie and Neeley are kids, to around 1900 when Katie and Johnny meet and fall in love, back to 1912 and moving forward as the kids grow up.  I liked the way the narrative flowed.

There were so many scenes of this book that I loved.  I love how Johnny helped Francie to go to the neighborhood school that she really wanted to go to.  I couldn’t stop thinking about when Francie saw her neighbors stone an unmarried mother who was strolling her baby.  I read that author Betty Smith witnessed a similar scene as a child and it helped inspire this book.  I liked how Francie noted that the only difference in the unmarried mother and others was there the unmarried mother didn’t have a father to force her sweetheart to marry her. 

Francie had an interesting job toward the end of the novel.  It took me awhile to figure out what exactly she was doing and then I realized she was basically a human Google at the time reading through papers to find information that people would pay for research.  I thought it was fascinating.

I watched the movie version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn years ago on Turner Classic movies and I loved it.  Johnny does not match the description in the book and it leaves much of the story of the book out, only focusing on the 1912 part of the story.  I’ve found a copy of it and I’m hoping to schedule a movie showing next month for the Back to the Classics Book Club.

Rogue Book Club thought the book was interesting, but was not sure why it is such a beloved classic.  Would the club have felt different if we read it when we were younger? I’m looking forward to talking about this book at Classics Book Club tomorrow night.

Favorite Quotes:
“She wept when they gave birth to daughters, knowing that to be born a woman meant a life of humble hardship.”

“Because the child must have a valuable thing called imagination.  The child must have a secret
world which live things that never were. . .. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination.”

“A person who pulls themselves up from a low environment via the bootstrap route has two choices.  Having risen above his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion and understanding in his heart for those he left behind him in the cruel upclimb.”

“Forgiveness is a gift of high value.  Yet it costs nothing.”

Overall, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a great look into poverty in the early twentieth century and an inspiring story of how one girl’s determination and hard work could get her out of it. It is a beautifully written novel.
Book Source:  I purchased a copy from last year.


  1. My sister loves this book but I've never read it. I do like those quotes you chose though. :)

  2. I read this many years ago. I need to reread this classic. Wonderful quotations, and beautiful review, Laura!