Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of Francie Nolan, born at the turn of the 20th century into a life of poverty. With a mother who works hard to support the family and a fun alcoholic dad who cannot be relied on for steady work, Francie and her younger brother Neeley have to help out by selling odd scraps along with the other poor children. Francie is a dreamer and her mother, with whom she has a mixed relationship, is not. But Katie learned from her own mother that the way to a better life is through education. So Katie gets ahold of a Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare to teach her children to read and hopes that this will help them succeed more in life. This beginning gives Francie something she needs and doesn’t realize that she has her mother to thank for this. It gives her an escape from the poverty by getting books from the local library, she’s able to read and go to other worlds.
While her mother feeds her love of education by reading nightly, when Francie wants to transfer to another school, where perhaps she won’t be treated like a leper of the public school system, her mother does nothing to help. Johnny steps into his parenting role and gets Francie into the school by lying about their address. Francie takes on the additional responsibility of having to walk back and forth to school twice a day, since her mother refuses to provide her a sack lunch.
The mother-daughter relationship is full of turmoil, with Katie admitting to the reader that she prefers Neeley over Francie. Francie was the harder baby to rear, but Katie never notices or acknowledges that as the children grow, she relies on Francie unfairly while giving extras to Neeley. Francie is the one to work, while Neeley goes to high school because Katie knows that Francie will get educated somehow, while Neeley is a slacker. While understandable, it reeks of favoritism and unfairness.
Smith’s characters are rich with contradiction and love for each other. She deals with life’s harshness but never lets the characters give up hope that something will get better. The characters are like the tree that grows in Brooklyn from the title, popping up in little cracks in the sidewalk, wanting life no matter the cost and environment. And the environment that Smith describes is harsh and unforgiving, but Francie will survive.
This was a fantastic book to read and to discuss in book club. I’m not giving the book justice by this documentation and may come back when I’m less tired to add more. This book is so rich in topics to discuss: poverty, sexism, racism, alcoholism, and more isms. Not only does this book capture a time period and place, it captures so much that is true about human nature and relationships.
Beautifully moving story.
Read November 2014