Review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn


When Stuart and I were in sixth grade, this new advanced English class was created. We both took the admission test that year to be accepted for the next school year. He got in. I did not, and so was forced to endure boring, slow-moving on-level seventh grade English. Because I was quite obviously bored, my lovely teacher decided to give me something different to read, and that something different was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

I remember loving the book as a twelve year-old, but save for one line about blackened pennies, I didn’t remember anything else. I wanted to read it again, but assumed it would be a slog like Jane Eyre (which I read over the summer and have yet to write a review for because I hated it so much.) To my pleasant surprise, I LOVED my second reading of the book.

The book follows Francie, who ages from eleven to sixteen as the story goes on, with lots of flashbacks to her earlier childhood. Francie lives in a small Brooklyn slum apartment with her parents and her little brother Neeley in the early twentieth century. Her parents are the children of immigrants, and Katie and Johnny are determined to give their children good lives… but they don’t really know how. Johnny is a constantly-drunk, usually out-of-work singing waiter, leaving Katie to support her family as a janitress. The book follows the struggles of the Nolan family, and Francie in particular, as they try to realize dreams, make life better, and keep up with the quickly-changing world.

I adore Francie as a character. She’s smart, tough, and imaginative. I love how determined she is to make something out of herself. From a young age, she decides she wants to be a writer and works toward that constantly, save for the time she’s torn down by a teacher for writing “disgusting” fiction that are actually essays based on Francie’s own life. I also loved reading about her non-writing adventures: trading bits of cloth for money, getting attacked by a murderer (who would have kidnapped and killed her if Katie didn’t shoot him), pledging her undying love to a soldier she knows for one day, and her musings on life in general.

Her family, too, is complex and layered. Smith allows us a peek at the family history on both sides and it only adds to an already rich storyline. My favorite part about knowing the backstory of the family is how much it helps develop Katie’s relationship with her children. As soon as Neeley is born, barely a year after Francie, Katie knows immediately that she will love him more than her daughter. The feeling only grows stronger as Francie gets older, mostly because the two are so alike. As she grows up, Francie realizes this, and toward the end of the book, she says after they fight, “Don’t be mad at me, Mama, because I fought you. You, yourself, taught me to fight for what I thought was right.” “You’re like me that way,” Katie answers. Francie thinks, “And that’s where the trouble is.  We’re too much alike to understand each other because we don’t even understand our own selves […] Mama understands Neeley because he’s different from her. I wish I was different in the way Neeley is.”

I know a few people who read this book once a year, and I kind of wish I did that growing up too, simply because the differences between how I read it at twelve and how I read it at twenty-two were so incredible. At twelve, I think I focused more on the beginning of the story, where Francie was closer to my then-age; I couldn’t really relate to the chapters where Francie got a job and experienced romance and, in general, grew up. This time, though, I read about sixteen year-old Francie and felt like Smith had read my diary from her grave. In this way, I believe that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not only great for kids and young adults, but adults as well. I love when books written so long ago (in this case, the 1940s) are still relevant to readers today.

Of course, not all of the book is necessarily for kids. Not that there’s anything terribly graphic, but Smith doesn’t gloss over Johnny’s long-developing fatal illness, the dangers of childbirth, the desperation of life in the slums, the intents of the murder that corners Francie, and sex. There’s a lot of sex talk in this book, something I didn’t pick up on as a pre-teen. But rather than being inappropriate, it’s just accurate of the learnings and yearnings of growing up, and especially for a writer in the 1940s, I respect the inclusion.

Read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Just read it. It’s amazing, and you’ll probably want to read it over and over and over.

Choice quotes:

On Sunday, most people crowded into the eleven o’clock mass. Well, some people, a few, went to the early six o’clock mass. They were given credit for this but they deserved none for they were the one who had stayed out so late that it was morning when they got home.

He wants to keep on living even though he’s so old and there’s nothing to be happy about anymore.

Poor people have a great passion for huge quantities of things.

Things were changing so fast for Francie now, that she got mixed up. Neeley who was a year younger than she, grew suddenly and got to be a head taller. Maudie Donovan moved away. When she returned on a visit three months later, Francie found her different. Maudie had developed in a womanly way during those three months. Francie, who knew mama was always right, found out that she was wrong once in awhile.

“Carney did not pinch my cheek today. He pinched something else. I guess I’m getting too big to sell junk.”

“Haven’t you any girl friends to talk to, Francie?”
“No. I hate women.”
“That’s not natural. It would do you good to  talk things over with girls your own age.”
“Have you any women friends, Mama?”
“No, I hate women,” said Katie.
“See? You’re just like me.”
“But I had a girl friend once and I got your father through her. So you see, a girl friend comes in handy sometimes.”

When Francie came in off the cold street she thought that the warmth was like a lover’s arms around her drawing her into the room. She wondered, incidentally, exactly what a lover’s arms felt like.

“I need someone,” thought Francie desperately. “I need someone. I need to hold somebody close. And I need more than this holding. I need someone to understand how I feel at a time like now. And the understanding must be part of the holding […] I need someone to love in a different way from the way I love [my family.] If I talked to mama about it, she’d say, ‘Yes? Well, when you get that feeling don’t linger in dark hallways with the boys.’ She’d worry, too, thinking I was going to be the way Sissy used to be. But it isn’t an Aunt Sissy thing because there’s this understanding that I want almost more than I want the holding.”

She liked Ben. She liked him an awful lot. She wished that she could love him. If only he wasn’t so sure of himself all the timeIf only he’d stumble- just once. If only he needed her. Ah, well.


Posted on January 15, 2013, in Books, Rachel, Reviews, Young Adult Fiction. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I started A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a while ago. I think it is beautifully written, so much so that I want to read it slowly to savor the telling. I’m encouraged to hear that you enjoyed it so.

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