A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith

The thing about writing about kids books when you still read kids books, is that sometimes you write about a book that you have only just read. Or that you read recently, or relatively recently, or – at any rate – less than five years ago. And that’s cool, because people should keep reading “books for kids”, right?

But reviews of books read recently are missing something. They’re missing the memories. They’re missing all those years of knowing the book and the people in it. They’re missing the thinking, the daydreaming, the wondering, the picking-up-off-the-shelf just to rub shoulders again, the re-reading important moments, the friendliness of a book that you know and love. There’s more that I feel about a book that I’ve carried around (literally and figuratively) with me for the better part of decades (eep – did I just write “decades”?! But it would be a lie to say “decade“). So there’s so much more to say.

The irony is that I can’t remember when I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I can’t even remember if I bought it and read it (yes, I own it), or if I read it and then hunted down a copy. I don’t even know if this is the cover of the copy I own or if it’s the cover of my childhood library copy. (I could run and check, but that is cheating and besides I am quite cozy in my sofa with a blanket just now). I just know that when I was looking for images of the book cover, none of the other book covers even rang a bell. This cover was “my” cover, and this Francie was “my” Francie, and I had no real interest in using any other cover for this post.

I have a few books that I will pick up off the shelf, just to read a particular section. Books where I know what’s going to happen, I just want to re-live it again. Admittedly, I go through phases where books will drop in and out of circulation, but A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is quite often up there.

I think that I picked this up because of the cover, and also partly because it had a poetic title that sounded like it had been plucked out of something larger. “A tree grows in Brooklyn”…and what else is going on? It’s so tantalizing! I couldn’t pass it by.

Betty Smith’s semi-autobiographical descriptions bring everything to life. Francie and her family, her mother’s sisters (the Rommelys), her father’s brothers (the Nolans), their lives full of hard work, poverty, love for each other and their grim determination to keep on keepin’ on and to laugh (or spit) in the face of despair. Francie Nolan starts out as a small child, daydreaming (what else does she have?) through her days with her little brother, Neely. Their mother, Katie, does her best to keep their family going with (despite?) the help of their father, Johnny, a charming and loving alcoholic. The book more or less follows Francie from grade school all the way through to college (with occasional forays into the lives of her family). Her sensitive observations about life and the people in it begin innocently, but grow up just as she does and readers are gradually made more aware – as she is – of how hard life is for her family.

The book is historical, in the sense that it captures an early 1900s Brooklyn that no longer exists (the All-of-a-Kind-Family books, by Sydney Taylor, do the same for Manhattan’s Lower East Side). But it’s modern in the sense that families still struggle against poverty in North America (and in New York), and the struggle doesn’t change although maybe the faces and places do. I keep wanting to say that Smith’s book tells us about how life “used to be”, but sadly, Smith’s book also tells us how life is for many people living in the margins. Get rid of the horse-drawn milk deliveries, the coal furnace for the building, the scrap-metal man down the street, and add a few guns and street drugs, more kitchen appliances, a few cosmetic changes and Francie could be growing up today.

[Warning: spoiler!]

The book does, ultimately have a “happy” ending. Johnny dies (this is not happy – it is so very sad), leaving Francie, Neely, their new sister Annie, and Katie to fend for themselves. Where is the happy ending? The Nolans are able to move out of the slums into a respectable home. They have some money! They have opportunity! How does it happen? Katie marries “up”.

Now, I love this book. And every time I get to the end, I feel the same nostalgia that Francie feels when she’s leaving her old neighbourhood, and the same relief that she feels that she will no longer be poor. Every time I read the end of the book, I close it with a satisfied sigh. It isn’t until later, when I think of how it ends, that I realize that if Katie Nolan hadn’t remarried a person with money, Francie and her family would still be miserably eking out a living. Rescued by a second husband! Good thing that Katie “preserved her looks”! Yes, this was (and probably is) a legitimate way out of poverty. But it’s a bit of a downer that the grit and steel of the Rommelly women isn’t enough to get them through. The lesson? Work hard, hope for results, don’t be surprised at injustice and failure, and when all else fails, marry up.

Reading Ages: 13 and up.

Rating: A.

Favourite Moments: One of my favourite scenes is when Johnny and Kate are sitting together in the kitchen, staying up late and talking:

Mama and papa sat in the kitchen. They would sit there and talk until daybreak. Papa was telling about the night’s work; the people he had seen, what they looked like and how they spoke. The Nolans just couldn’t get enough of life. They lived their own lives up to the hilt but that wasn’t enough. They had to fill in on the lives of all the people they made contact with. So Johnny and Katie talked away the night and the rise and fall of their voices was a safe and soothing sound in the dark.


2 thoughts on “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith

  1. Are all her novels semi-autobiographical? In Joy in the Morning, the protagonist leaves Brooklyn at 18 to marry her boyfriend (who’s attending law school in the Midwest) and it is intimated that her stepfather was sexually abusing her. This would be a sad ending for Francie/Betty.

  2. Hm – I’d never made that connection. It would be a sad ending, because that guy Katie married seemed so nice (Sergeant McShane?) and had such a good reputation. But I guess he was just a skirt-chaser after all (!).

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