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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)

by Betty Smith

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While Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn will never rival Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep for so-called high-brow literature, the two books have something in common: pluck. In the eminently readable A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Smith shows it to us in the Nolans—a half Irish-, half Austrian-American family at home(s) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In Call It Sleep, Roth uses stream-of-consciousness alongside narrative descriptions of squalor and depravity on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to show us—if you’ll allow a clunky metaphor—an alternative definition of pluck: namely, “the heart, liver, windpipe and lungs of a slaughtered animal” (American Heritage Dictionary). Is it fair to say that one novel is better than the other, that one writer is more accomplished than the other? I think it is. Henry Roth wins hands down. If Roth’s novel deals with depravity, Smith’s deals with deprivation. The difference between Roth’s David Schearl (the beaten young “hero” of Call It Sleep) and Smith’s Francie Nolan (the coming-of-age heroine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) is no less than that between resignation and hope. On Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the first two decades of the last century, ‘hope’ would’ve been a cynical sluice to the East River and its pollutants. In the Williamsburg ghetto of the same period, ‘hope’ would’ve been the only dyke keeping that same river and its pollutants at bay. Hope, for the heroes of both stories, is just a well-appreciated resting place along the way to resignation. If there’s any similarity between the two novels, it’s to be found in Chapter 43 of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. This—at least to my way of thinking—is where Betty Smith’s prose shines with a brilliance equal to Roth’s. Why, then, would I here suggest that Roth is the better writer? In deciding upon the virtues of the harp or the lyre versus the trombone or the tuba, first consider the player—as much that of the reviewer as that of the author. I find that Roth takes me deeper into his characters and into their immediate circumstances while Smith tweaks me as a reader. For my money, she’s a bit too heavy-handed in jerking the obvious tear. Would I read either or both once again? Unequivocally, yes. I’ve already read Call It Sleep twice. I may one day invest in a second reading of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. If, in a word or two, I had to characterize the two novels, I’d say that Call It Sleep stretches the brain cells while A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tugs at the heart strings. Either way, you can’t lose. But what do I know? Call It Sleep had to wait thirty years to find an appreciable (and appreciative) audience; meanwhile, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was an instant success. Is there a more fitting—and telling—tribute to the American myth? Ms. Smith, meet Mr. Horatio Alger. ( )
  RussellBittner | Dec 12, 2014 |
I ran across this book at the library and picked it up wondering how I had gotten to such a grand old age without reading this classic. After several pages I began to falter in my determination to read it in its entirety. But I persevered and the book began to grow on me and I even shed tears several times the tale was so moving. I was surprised to realize that so much of what was taking place in the early 1900's still takes place today. How I wanted to buy several sacks of groceries and time travel to Francie apt and hand them over! Hunger was a huge part of her life! What amazed me the most was how I related to her statement on how she did not like women. It has been my experience that woman tend to hate other women. Child birth does not bind us together, submission to the "man's world" does not bind us together. Francie learned this at a tender age, I learned it much later and should have realized it in grammar school! Loved this book once I became emotionally engaged with the characters and the story. ( )
  Alphawoman | Dec 6, 2014 |
This book is one of my favorites! Read my full review at http://owlyouneedreads.blogspot.com/2013/04/a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn.html ( )
  knsievert | Nov 25, 2014 |
This book is one of my favorites! Read my full review at http://owlyouneedreads.blogspot.com/2013/04/a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn.html ( )
  knsievert | Nov 25, 2014 |
Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. 1947. 420 pp. $17.99. Harper. 978-0061120-077.
Francie Nolan is the precocious and thoughtful daughter of a hardworking yet stern mother and her beloved alcoholic father who struggle to get by in the impoverished slums of Brooklyn. Smith records in dizzying detail the daily lives of Francie and her brother Neely. Smith’s characters are richly developed and memorable, and the characters’ struggles continue to be relatable. This coming-of-age tale is realistic and full of tenderness, without being sentimental. Issues such as poverty, sex, and politics are discussed through the lens of Francie’s developing understanding of the world. The complexity of these themes and the rich historical portrait of early 1900s makes it an excellent novel for use in high school classrooms. Librarians may have to booktalk this classic to readers, but those who pick it up will be delighted. ( )
  alovett | Nov 20, 2014 |
“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. ( )
  padmajoy | 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 |
http://coffeetalkwitherin.com/2014/01/15/a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn-by-betty-smith...

Every now and then I find books that I just relish. This book is one of them and I can see why it is so highly rated as a modern classic.

For those of you who have not heard of or read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the story follows the Nolan family in Brooklyn, USA at the beginning of the 20th Century just prior to and during the First World War. Although we are privy to the lives of all of the characters and their thoughts, it is really the story of Francie, a bookish young girl who I really connected with as a reader. The Nolans live in the tenements, the slums of Brooklyn and for the most part struggle on a daily basis to find the money for food and the rent. Her father is a likeable and yet a largely hopeless man, addicted to drink and but full of affection and life. He is adored by his daughter despite his shortcomings. Katie, the mother, is a hard working woman and the one who holds the family together, working day and night to ensure their survival. Francie and Katie, although alike, are never close as Katie prefers Neely, Francie's brother.

The novel is largely plotless. There is no central event to base the novel around, rather it is a loving description of the hard and yet often joyful life of the poor in Brooklyn during that period. If you like a fast paced book, this isn't it. Having said that, there are major events, including births, deaths, war and family ties which make it such a strong book and an incredible read.

The book is a true character novel and one of it's most intriguing and lovingly described characters is Brooklyn itself. Betty Smith is also a master at writing from the perspective of a child, obviously drawing on her own life experience as a migrant child in Brooklyn and she brilliantly explores the difficult decisions adults must always make and how they are perceived by the children involved.

I went through waves of like and dislike for Katie, the mother. She is a proud, hard working woman, ever faithful to her likeable but lazy husband, whom the family cannot depend upon for a regular income due to his alcoholic tendencies. As a mother, she at first seems to be the pits. She prefers her son over her daughter, something that is plain to Francie in every way. Despite Neely's disinterest in further education (and Francie's desperation to finish high school) she pushes him to go and Francie into paid employment. She is fully aware of her favour, and although she tries to hide it, it guides many of her choices. She and Francie seem to be so alike that they hardly understand each other, and it isn't until Francie becomes more of a woman that they begin to need each other. And although her affection is greater for Neely, her respect and expectations are much higher for her daughter who she believes will always be greater than the life of poverty that the Nolans have led so far. I liked Katie more with each page turned because she showed her love to her children in ways that are less obvious. She protected them with every floor she scrubbed and that makes a good mother.

Francie is my favourite character for she is a reader and a hard worker like her mother, however she has the softness of her father's character which makes her more empathetic to the needs of others. I loved her journey as a writer as a child, where she writes stories for her teachers and father. There is a scene where a teacher claimed her stories of life in the slums are “filth”. Francie never quite believes her teacher that the truth can be so filthy. Indeed, both she and her brother agree that life in the slums of Brooklyn could never be so fun than it is.

There are so many things I could say about this book, or so many scenes that moved me, such as the one and only time Francie recieves a doll (through the charity of a rich young girl at Christmas) or the scenes when she falls in love. I loved every moment of the final few pages. I drank this book in and I feel better for having read it. ( )
1 vote Erin.Patel | Aug 22, 2014 |
http://coffeetalkwitherin.com/2014/01/15/a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn-by-betty-smith...

Every now and then I find books that I just relish. This book is one of them and I can see why it is so highly rated as a modern classic.

For those of you who have not heard of or read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the story follows the Nolan family in Brooklyn, USA at the beginning of the 20th Century just prior to and during the First World War. Although we are privy to the lives of all of the characters and their thoughts, it is really the story of Francie, a bookish young girl who I really connected with as a reader. The Nolans live in the tenements, the slums of Brooklyn and for the most part struggle on a daily basis to find the money for food and the rent. Her father is a likeable and yet a largely hopeless man, addicted to drink and but full of affection and life. He is adored by his daughter despite his shortcomings. Katie, the mother, is a hard working woman and the one who holds the family together, working day and night to ensure their survival. Francie and Katie, although alike, are never close as Katie prefers Neely, Francie's brother.

The novel is largely plotless. There is no central event to base the novel around, rather it is a loving description of the hard and yet often joyful life of the poor in Brooklyn during that period. If you like a fast paced book, this isn't it. Having said that, there are major events, including births, deaths, war and family ties which make it such a strong book and an incredible read.

The book is a true character novel and one of it's most intriguing and lovingly described characters is Brooklyn itself. Betty Smith is also a master at writing from the perspective of a child, obviously drawing on her own life experience as a migrant child in Brooklyn and she brilliantly explores the difficult decisions adults must always make and how they are perceived by the children involved.

I went through waves of like and dislike for Katie, the mother. She is a proud, hard working woman, ever faithful to her likeable but lazy husband, whom the family cannot depend upon for a regular income due to his alcoholic tendencies. As a mother, she at first seems to be the pits. She prefers her son over her daughter, something that is plain to Francie in every way. Despite Neely's disinterest in further education (and Francie's desperation to finish high school) she pushes him to go and Francie into paid employment. She is fully aware of her favour, and although she tries to hide it, it guides many of her choices. She and Francie seem to be so alike that they hardly understand each other, and it isn't until Francie becomes more of a woman that they begin to need each other. And although her affection is greater for Neely, her respect and expectations are much higher for her daughter who she believes will always be greater than the life of poverty that the Nolans have led so far. I liked Katie more with each page turned because she showed her love to her children in ways that are less obvious. She protected them with every floor she scrubbed and that makes a good mother.

Francie is my favourite character for she is a reader and a hard worker like her mother, however she has the softness of her father's character which makes her more empathetic to the needs of others. I loved her journey as a writer as a child, where she writes stories for her teachers and father. There is a scene where a teacher claimed her stories of life in the slums are “filth”. Francie never quite believes her teacher that the truth can be so filthy. Indeed, both she and her brother agree that life in the slums of Brooklyn could never be so fun than it is.

There are so many things I could say about this book, or so many scenes that moved me, such as the one and only time Francie recieves a doll (through the charity of a rich young girl at Christmas) or the scenes when she falls in love. I loved every moment of the final few pages. I drank this book in and I feel better for having read it. ( )
  Erin.Patel | Aug 22, 2014 |
This was a very good book. Although nothing really HAPPENED plot wise, it was a touching, heartbreaking story of a girl growing up in poverty at the beginning of the 20th century. Definitely a book worth reading. ( )
  sammii507 | Aug 19, 2014 |


This book goes to the top of my list of favorite books. Beautiful, in prose and diction, these are the kinds of authors I aspire to write as well as, and doubt I will ever succeed... ( )
  KRaySaulis | Aug 13, 2014 |
This is a remarkable and poignant tale of young idealistic Francie Nolan. Not quite as cruelly told as Angela's Ashes, it nonetheless is a story of the cruelty and hardships of growing up poor.. The daily experiences of the Nolan family are raw and honest and it's characters are inspiring. ( )
  creighley | Aug 12, 2014 |
I read this book as a preteen and loved it, reading it again and again. I finally read it as an adult and appreciated it anew.
[a:Maggie Anton|79249|Maggie Anton|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1337899260p2/79249.jpg] ( )
  Maggie.Anton | Jul 18, 2014 |
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows Francie Nolan as she grows up in Boston as part of a poor, second-generation, American family. A major theme running throughout the book is Francie’s mother’s focus on seeing her children educated and giving them a better life than she herself had. Francie’s own love of reading and education was to me one of the most endearing parts of the novel. As a bibliophile, it’s hard not to fall in love with a precocious little girl who’s decided to read through every book in her library – what she thinks is every book in the world. This is a small spoiler, but I think the fact that Francie eventually got her education was crucial to my enjoyment of the book. I’m someone who prefers happy endings any way and to have someone so in love with learning be stuck working menial jobs forever would have just been too heart breaking.

Read more here... ( )
  DoingDewey | Jun 29, 2014 |
“Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words.” ( )
  Meandu91 | Apr 23, 2014 |
"A lie was something you told because you were mean or a coward.
A story was something you made up out of something that might have happened.
Only you didn't tell it like it was, you told it like you thought it should have been."



"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words."

"From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived." ( )
  FAR2MANYBOOKS | Apr 5, 2014 |
"A lie was something you told because you were mean or a coward.
A story was something you made up out of something that might have happened.
Only you didn't tell it like it was, you told it like you thought it should have been."



"Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words."

"From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived." ( )
  FAR2MANYBOOKS | Apr 5, 2014 |
This is one of the more heart wrenching novels I've read in years, this Pulitzer Prize-winning classic about an ethnically-blended family in Brooklyn just before the first World War, told through the young protagonist, Francie Nolan. Her mother Katie is an uneducated but proud mother, struggling to provide for her children and secure a better life for them. Her loving but alcoholic husband is a meager provider. This is before there was any societal safety net at all, and many times it's a question whether the family will be able to survive another week or not. The novel is semi-autobiographical; the sequences about the family's many and practiced strategies for keeping fed and sheltered ring with brutal truth. Katie Nolan knows in her heart that the children will have a chance in life if they can only get a decent education, something which Francie desires more than anything. But many times the struggle for survival overshadows everything. This is a powerful and emotional story that draws us into the family's hardscrabble life and makes us care for them, rooting for their small successes and reeling with the many setbacks and tragedies they endure. The sadly sweet ending left me teary-eyed, and hoping that the safeguards a modern and more compassionate (?) society now have in place are enough that this kind of life is rare indeed. ( )
  burnit99 | Mar 27, 2014 |
Smith has such a lyrical style of writing. her descriptions are flawless, when reading her book you see through her eyes and live her life. The scene in the library is still one of my favorites. ( )
  Laurie.Schultz | Mar 15, 2014 |
Why did I wait so long to read this book?? I thoroughly enjoyed this coming of age story with its loss of innocence and message of hope. Read a full review on my blog, Terri Talks Books http://www.territalksbooks.com/2014/02/a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn-by-betty-smith.h... ( )
  TerriB | Feb 18, 2014 |
This book is very much of its time. ( )
  PetreaBurchard | Feb 9, 2014 |
Has the same general feel as the Laura Ingalls Wilder books--that painstaking recreation of long-ago American childhood, with details so specific yet prosaic that they seem as though they must come straight from the author's personal memory.

Speaks plainly (and without moralizing) about uncomfortable topics like death and sadness and sex. That bluntness was one of the things I appreciated about the book. That and its depiction of a Williamsburg that is unbelievably different from the Williamsburg of today.

Francie is a great character--I loved her skepticism about the plots of the melodramas in the theatre. 3.5-ish stars. ( )
  thatotter | Feb 6, 2014 |
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