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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (original 1943; edition 1947)

by Betty Smith, Richard Bergere (Illustrator)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
9,585251301 (4.34)1 / 632
Member:fuzzi
Title:A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Authors:Betty Smith
Other authors:Richard Bergere (Illustrator)
Info:Harper & Row Publishers (1947) Hardcover, illustrated book club edition
Collections:Your library, Favorites, TBSL, Best of 2012
Rating:****1/2
Tags:Brooklyn, children, poverty, girl, TBSL

Work details

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)

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English (241)  Spanish (5)  French (1)  Italian (1)  Chinese, traditional (1)  All languages (249)
Showing 1-5 of 241 (next | show all)
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a simply told tale about life – the good, the bad, the ugly. When it was first published in 1943, it was lauded as being an “honest” book.

Francie (Frances) Nolan is the sweet, intelligent heroine and story teller of this honest tale – child of handsome but drunken Johnny and beautiful, thoughtful but hard-lucked Katie, and sister to one year younger Neeley (Cornelius). On the surface, there is poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, hunger, and death – the usual struggles of immigrant families (although Francie was third gen). Just below the surface is the richly woven fabric of love – complex, deep, strong-willed. This tale is enriched by Katie’s two sisters, Sisley and Evy (Eva), and Katie’s mother, Mary. Sisley, being childless for most parts of the book, played a large role in the children’s lives, filling them with love, treats, and entertaining gossip. The strength of the women in this book charms the reader.

The novel is divided into five books:
Book One – The introduction of Francie at the age of 11 in 1912. Life is hard around these Brooklyn blocks, and we get a picture of the difficult lives of everyone – from meals from stale bread to junk selling for pennies.
Book Two – In 1900, we learn the meeting of Johnny and Katie, showcasing an abundance of her will.
Book Three – Back to the “present”, the Nolans’ lives settle in and Francie is in a better school, enjoying her education. Alas tragedy strikes the family. And later, a new sister, Annie Laurie was born.
Book Four – Francie and Neeley both take jobs at the ages of 14 and 13. Having lied about her age to be 16, Francie became exceedingly successful in her newspapers reading/clipping job (old school data research!) U.S. enters World War I in 1917. Neeley returned to high school, while Francie lands a new job.
Book Five – Wrap-up. Francie is 17, and the family leaves the neighborhood for a better future.

I tend to enjoy tales of immigrants, and this was a gem too. To prevent lice and mumps: “Francie attended school stinking of garlic and kerosene oil. Everyone avoided her. In the crowded yard, there was always a cleared space around her. In crowded trolley cars, people huddled away from those Nolan children.” With a penny (to buy a sheet of paper and envelope), Francie attends a better school (still happens now). “Johnny wrote a note saying Francie was going to live with relatives at such and such an address and wanted a transfer… He signed his name and underlined it authoritatively.” Living on 6 loaves of stale bread: “The Nolans practically lived on that stale bread and what amazing things Katie could make from it! ... They lived mostly on these things made from stale bread, and condensed milk and coffee, onions, potatoes, and always the penny’s worth of something bought at the last minute, added for fillip.”

Like the Tree of Heaven that grows through the hardened concrete streets of Brooklyn, the will to live outweighs the circumstances. Without giving out the ending, I was a bit disappointed at the ending, which felt too easy of a path for Francie and her family. I shouldn’t be judgmental though. Given it was 1918 (and the book is semi-autobiographical), it is what it was.

Quotes:
On courting and falling in love:
“Feeling his arms around her and instinctively adjusting herself to his rhythm, Katie knew that he was the man she wanted. She’d ask nothing more than to look at him and to listen to him for the rest of her life. Then and there, she decided that those privileges were worth slaving for all her life.
Maybe that decision was her great mistake. She should have waited until some man came along who felt that way about her.”

On the reason to immigrate:
“There is here, what is not in the old country. In spite of hard unfamiliar things, there is here – hope.”

On a child’s pride and fierce protection for a younger sibling:
“’My brother is next. His arm is just as dirty as mine so don’t be surprised. And you don’t have to tell him. You told me.’ They stared at this bit of humanity who had become so strangely articulate. Francie’s voice went ragged with a sob. “You don’t have to tell him. Besides it won’t do no good. He’s a boy and he don’t care if he is dirty.’”

On nature’s balance – and hope:
“There had to be the dark and muddy waters so that the sun could have something to background its flashing glory.”

On truth and fancy – and the path of becoming a writer:
From a teacher to Francie: “When something comes up, you tell exactly how it happened but write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened. Tell the truth and write the story. Then you won’t get mixed up.”

On being 45 – yikes!
“The day will come, Francie, when you’re forty-five and have a shape like a bag of horses’ oats tied in the middle. Then you’ll look back and long for the old days when men wanted to pinch you.” ( )
1 vote varwenea | Sep 27, 2014 |
Having little time to read, this was a slow starter. Unlike contemporary fiction with the "page-turning" literary device I don't know the name of, Ms. Smith's book passed like time, some days more interesting than others. A portrait of Brooklyn in the early 1900's through the eyes of a young girl. I think I was reading the original edition with the cover illustration of the 'tree of heaven' growing up alongside a brick building with the bridge connecting it to Manhattan in the background. The pages were so worn and silky they were hard to turn. I couldn't help feeling like I was reading it along with all the others who'd checked it out from the library before me. All of us sharing this intimate history together as if it were our own. ( )
  hallywog | Sep 11, 2014 |
I'm sure this book was great in the 1940s but it was not that interesting to me in 2014. And I even grew up in Brooklyn, but that did not help. Characters seemed very one dimensional to me and the writing was a bit simplistic. ( )
  padmacatell | Sep 8, 2014 |
I can't believe I waited so long to read this book. It is such an amazing book! It's all about being American, but it's not all tacky or patriotic or anything. Well, it is patriotic, but not in a tacky way. And it's also just about life, and growing up. And it has lots of excerpts from songs and poems, and I always love that in a book. ( )
  GraceZ | Sep 6, 2014 |
This is a bittersweet story of coming of age in the pre-WWI tenements of the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn. Francie and her younger brother Neely, collect junk to sell on Saturdays while their parents eke out a living scrubbing tenement floors (the mom) and singing at weddings (the dad). Life is hard, brutal, and frequently short, but the children find their own beauty and strength in family relationships and small triumphs. For those who enjoyed the movie, it only covered about 2/3's of the book. There are several more interesting and hopeful chapters about the Nolan family after the end of the movie. There's also a good deal of humor in the book, which given the grim background is a relief. This book is considered a classic, which means I tolerated a writing style which, in a modern book, would drive me crazy--almost no plot, heavy on the detail, and frequent head-hopping in an omniscient point of view. But I enjoyed the story and, as a Brooklynite, especially enjoyed the setting. It deserves it's title of classic. ( )
1 vote MarysGirl | Aug 22, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Smith, Bettyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Fields, AnnaReadersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly. . .survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.
Dedication
First words
Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York.
Quotations
Francie came away from her first chemistry lecture in a glow. In one hour she had found out that everything was made up of atoms which were in continual motion. She grasped the idea that nothing was ever lost or destroyed. Even if something was burned up or left to rot away, it did not disappear from the face of the earth; it changed into something else—gases, liquids, and powders. Everything, decided Francie after that first lecture, was vibrant with life and there was no death in chemistry. She was puzzled as to why learned people didn’t adopt chemistry as a religion.
Dear God, let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry...have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well-dressed. Let me be sincere- be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.
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Wikipedia in English (2)

Book description
Francie Nolan, avid reader, penny-candy connoisseur, and adroit observer of human nature, has much to ponder in colorful, turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. She grows up with a sweet, tragic father, a severely realistic mother, and an aunt who gives her love too freely--to men, and to a brother who will always be the favored child. Francie learns early the meaning of hunger and the value of a penny. She is her father's child--romantic and hungry for beauty. But she is her mother's child, too--deeply practical and in constant need of truth. Like the Tree of Heaven that grows out of cement or through cellar gratings, resourceful Francie struggles against all odds to survive and thrive.
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0061120073, Paperback)

Francie Nolan, avid reader, penny-candy connoisseur, and adroit observer of human nature, has much to ponder in colorful, turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. She grows up with a sweet, tragic father, a severely realistic mother, and an aunt who gives her love too freely--to men, and to a brother who will always be the favored child. Francie learns early the meaning of hunger and the value of a penny. She is her father's child--romantic and hungry for beauty. But she is her mother's child, too--deeply practical and in constant need of truth. Like the Tree of Heaven that grows out of cement or through cellar gratings, resourceful Francie struggles against all odds to survive and thrive. Betty Smith's poignant, honest novel created a big stir when it was first published over 50 years ago. Her frank writing about life's squalor was alarming to some of the more genteel society, but the book's humor and pathos ensured its place in the realm of classics--and in the hearts of readers, young and old. (Ages 10 and older) --Emilie Coulter

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:49:37 -0400)

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Young Francie Nolan, having inherited both her father's romantic and her mother's practical nature, struggles to survive and thrive growing up in the slums of Brooklyn in the early twentieth century.

(summary from another edition)

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