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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)

by Betty Smith

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10,473299273 (4.34)1 / 701
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Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In today's world, it's ground zero of the hipster renaissance. It's more expensive to live in Brooklyn lately than it is to live in Manhattan. But it wasn't always that way. A century ago, when A Tree Grows in Brooklyn takes place, Williamsburg was where the immigrants and/or poor people lived. People like Francie Nolan and her family.

If you're a fan of plot-driven novels, this probably isn't going to be the book for you. Nothing much really happens...two young people, the children of Irish and German immigrants, meet, fall in love, and marry. They have two children, a girl and a boy. The father, Johnny Nolan, is charming and sweet-natured but fundamentally weak, incapable of holding down a steady job because of his alcoholism. The mother, Katie Nolan, is strong-willed, hard-working and tries but fails to hide her preference for her son over her daughter. The family lives in poverty, barely scraping by, as the children grow up. Francie, the daughter, is the center of the story, and the plot is largely about her poor but otherwise mostly unremarkable childhood.

But for me personally, I didn't even really notice that there was less in the way of plot, because the characterization and quality of writing were so strong. The shy and bookish yet resilient Francie and her world were apparently an only thinly veiled version of author Betty Smith's own childhood experiences, and a feeling of lived emotional truth resonates throughout the novel. Smith's prose isn't showily beautiful like Vladimir Nabakov's, but she strikes home keen insights about childhood and growing up with elegance and sensitivity. The characters are all people that exist in the real world: the good-natured and lovable but ultimately feckless overgrown child, the harried parent who has to stay strong enough to keep it all together at the expense of their own emotional wants and needs, the standoffish person who holds themself apart and pre-rejects everyone else before they can be rejected, the younger sibling who manages to get away with more than the older sibling would have ever thought to try. It may be set 100 years ago, but the story it tells is still meaningful today. ( )
1 vote ghneumann | Apr 28, 2016 |
The beginning of this really swept me away - I loved it, but the spell wore off as the book continued. ( )
  BrydieWalkerBain | Apr 26, 2016 |
From our first year in bookclub. I don't think I would have ever heard of this book and am so glad I did. A come to age book about a girl who is saved by grit and education. If you liked The Glass Castle, you need to read this book. ( )
  sydsavvy | Apr 8, 2016 |
I refuse to assign stars to this book, because I have no idea how I would rate it. 5 stars is supposed to mean, "it was amazing". I firmly believe that yes, it was amazing. It made me think, I learned from it, I went through a gamut of emotions while reading it. Actually, no, I didn't go through a gamut of emotions, I experienced pretty much just one emotion - sadness and depression (oops, that is 2 emotions). I don't like 400+ pages of sadness and depression, so I really didn't like reading this book. Does that mean it is not amazing? No. It proves the author's stunning ability to make me feel the pain that the characters were feeling. Many people have compared this book to Little Women , but that is like comparing apples to oranges. There was always hope and love and laughter in Little Women , even through their hard times. Here there was starvation, squalor, loss and burned dreams. Oh, if only Francie could have had a Marmee! But Katie could never have been a Marmee, even if she had loved Francie as much as she loved Neeley, because her life was one big never-ending cycle of drudgery and disappointment. How did those people living in the tenements survive? And yet, they were tenacious, hard-working, tough as nails and full of pride. I couldn't help but think of how our welfare system seems to have killed those traits in people. Francie and her family would have rather starved than accept "charity" for work they didn't do. One of the parts of the book that stuck with me the most was Francie describing standing in line to buy stale bread. 6 loaves of stale bread fed the family for a week, and "what amazing things Katie could make from it!". There is a page and a half describing the suppers made from the loaves of stale bread.

Another section that resonated with me was Francie's visit to the library. She read a book a day and was determined to read every book in the library, so she started with author's whose last name began with A, and was up to "Brown". On Saturdays Francie would get her alphabetical book, but then treat herself with another book. She would always ask the librarian to suggest a good book for a girl. Without bothering to look up, the librarian would ask the age of the girl and Francie would say her age, which was 11 at the time.

Each week Francie made the same request and each week the librarian asked the same question. A name on a card meant nothing to her and since she never looked up into a child's face, she never did get to know the little girl who took a book out every day and two on Saturday. A smile would have meant a lot to Francie and a friendly comment would have made her so happy. She loved the library and was anxious to worship the lady in charge. But the librarian had other things on her mind. She hated children anyhow.

The librarian would then hand her one of two books as the only ones she would recommend for this poor, starved little piece of humanity. When Francie went back many years later and asked for a recommendation for an 11 year old girl, the same woman handed her one of the same books. As a middle school librarian who loves books and who loves my students, this woman's behavior was horrific to me. What a difference she could have made in that little girl's life! In case someone thinks I have forgotten that this is a work of fiction, I have not. However, I think that the librarian was portrayed accurately for that time and that location.

I read this book because I had just had some 6th grade classes in the library discussing "classics", and this was one of the books on my children's classics list that I had never read. I'm not quite sure why this would be classified as a "children's" classic when it deals with many and varied adult issues. As a parent, I would never have let my 6th grader read this book. High school - yes, but it is pretty gritty for middle schoolers.

While I can't say I enjoyed this book, I will say that it made a huge impression on me and made me very appreciative of the things I have and the ease of my life. There is a Tenement Museum in NYC that I would like to visit now that I have read about life in them.

Areas of concern:
*The sexual content is quite high. There is an aunt who is a "bad" girl and sleeps around with all sorts of men. There is a child sexual predator on the loose and there is a pretty graphic description when he gets his hands on the main character. Childbirth and breastfeeding are thoroughly discussed. There are some crude and vulgar references towards body parts and sex.
*Oh, so politically incorrect! There are slang terms and slurs against Jews, Italians, Irish... It is a true representation of the time and location, but it could be offensive to some.
*A handful of cuss words.
*The sadness and complete depressive tone of the whole book, with really very little sense of hope or redemption, could be disturbing for many (including me).

  Bduke | Apr 1, 2016 |
As I wrote in my updates , at first I was a bit disappointed. I guess I just expected a totally different book and nothing happened.It started out a bit slow.

Well I am so glad I kept reading cause this is such a great book! I can see why this is a classic and why after so many years this book is still loved by many.

There are a lot of details in this book but it made me really see the picture of Brooklyn in those days. Loved the main character and her family.
I did not want it to end.
( )
  Marlene-NL | Mar 12, 2016 |
5***** and a ❤

This is a classic coming-of-age novel that closely parallels the author’s own childhood in Brooklyn. The novel tells the story of Francie Nolan, her parents, siblings and extended family from about 1900 to 1920. The story opens when Francie and her brother Neeley (short for Cornelius), are on their weekly rounds collecting junk to earn a few extra pennies for the household. The reader soon discovers that the Nolans are very poor and live in a squalid tenement, which they can afford only because their mother, Katie, is the janitress for the building (and several others). Their father, Johnny, is a charming man, always immaculately dressed, who earns what he can as a singing waiter, but drinks most of his earnings. Despite their poverty, however, the family has a relatively happy life – there is plenty of love in this home; and their parents instill in the children the importance of education as a way to improve their circumstances.

The novel is full of the routine life of a child – the delight in a bag of candy, the excitement of a new school, the comfort of a mother’s love, the faith in a father’s ability to “fix it.” Children mature, and are exposed to harsher realities, and the novel deals with these as well – disappointment, uncertainty, war, hunger, people who would cheat you, lie to you, hurt you. Smith’s book is not a candy-coated light read, but, just like life, there is plenty of humor to lift the spirit, and it ends on a hopeful note.

The writing is fairly straight-forward and the story line uncomplicated. But the way Smith reveals her characters, especially Francie as she grows into a young woman, is what really appeals to me.

I read this in 1999, and vaguely remembered it, but I had forgotten many of the details. For my re-read, in June 2011, I listened to the audio book. Carrington MacDuffie does a fine job narrating this book and all the many characters in it.

Finally, I just have to add, that while it’s not the first time I’ve identified with a character, I really identify with Francie, and was struck again by the many parallels between her and myself. Like Francie’s parents, mine were married on New Year’s Day, and like Francie, I was born in December that same year. Like her, I was very close to my younger brother; and after my mother had another baby when I was in high school, I spent more evenings helping my mother take care of the baby than going out with friends. We even have the same name – Frances. But most importantly, we share a love of reading and a curiosity about the world, while cherishing our family and home. ( )
  BookConcierge | Mar 4, 2016 |
Francie Nolan- Francie is the protagonist. The novel begins en medias res when Francie is 12 years old. The rest of the novel tells of Francie's life until she goes to college at 17. Francie grows up in Brooklyn in the early twentieth century; her family is in constant poverty throughout most of the novel. Francie is unique in Brooklyn; she has a thirst for knowledge and strives constantly for education. Francie shares a great admiration for her drunken father, Johnny Nolan, and wishes for an improved relationship with her mother, hardworking Katie Nolan. Francie is a symbol of the American Dream, or the wish of many immigrants in the early twentieth century to rise above their impoverished circumstances. Francie, herself, is symbolized in the book by the "Tree of Heaven," a tree that flourishes in the most unlikely circumstances.

Katie Rommely Nolan- Katie Rommely Nolan is Francie's mother. She is a second generation immigrants, with an evil father and an angel mother who immigrated from Austria. She married Johnny Nolan when she was only 17 years old. Katie was known as a hardworking woman who ran her home in such a way that her children were able to enjoy their childhood despite their extreme poverty. Because Johnny was an alcoholic and could rarely hold a job, Katie takes on the responsibility of providing for her family for most of her life by working as a maid. Katie cares intensely about education for her children. Also, Katie finds that she is more devoted to Neeley than to Francie. After Johnny dies, Katie is pregnant and must find a way to survive on her own until she marrys McShane, a local policeman turned politician.

Sissy Rommely (Aunt Sissy)- Sissy Rommely is Katie Rommely's older sister. Because of her parents immigration and lack of knowledge in their new environment, Sissy never goes to school and is therefore illiterate. Sissy is beautiful, and many men fall in love with her. She is first married at 15, but after being unable to have any children that live with her husband Sissy leaves him and never gets a divorce. She marries two more times without getting a divorce or children. In between marriages Sissy has a number of lovers. She calls each of her husbands and lovers by the name "John" until her final husband, Steve, insists that she gets divorces and calls him Steve. Sissy has ten miscarriages, and gets one daughter through adoption and finally has one successful birth. Sissy is a complex character who is loving and admired, but morally gray.

Johnny Nolan- Johnny Nolan is Francie's father. He is the second generation immigrant from Ireland. He has a protective mother and had three brothers, who all died young. Johnny marries Katie Rommely at nineteen. Johnny is a likable man and loving husband and father. He is, however, an alcoholic, which prevents him from providing for his family, leaving much of that responsibility to Katie. Johnny is, however, loved very much by his family, especially by Francie. When he does have a job, Johnny works as a singing waiter. He has a beautiful voice, a talent that is greatly admired and goes to waste. After Katie tells him that she is pregnant with their third child, Johnny gets pneumonia and dies. Johnny is a dreamer, and acts as a foil to Katie's realism.

Minor Characters:

Neely Nolan- Francie's little brother. He is a year younger than Francie. He is more loved by his mother, Katie. Neely is a normal child who is accepted more easily than Francie. Neely, however, does endure through the poverty and loss of his father with Francie. He refuses to follow the tradition of Nolan men and determines to never become an alcoholic. He too admits with Francie that despite their poverty, they had a positive childhood.

Evy Rommely- Katie and Sissy's sister. Considered throughout most of the novel to be better off than Katie, Evy deals with the struggles of yet another lazy husband. At the end of the novel Evy's husband leaves her and she, like Katie once had to, continues on.

Mary Rommely- Katie, Evy, and Sissy's mother. An immigrant from Austria, Mary never learns to read or write English and is very limited in her speech. Tortured by an almost satanic husband, Mary endures well and is a moral and practical guide to her daughters throughout their lives.

Lee Rhynor- Francie's first love; a soldier on leave who leads Francie on despite his engagement back home.

Ben Blake- A boy Francie befriends at her first summer of college classes. Ben is driven and determined. While he is the object of Francie's affection at first, she feels differently after falling in love with Lee. However, at the end of the novel Francie goes to college with Ben and there is a possibility of future romance.

  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
Nolan in slum — Francie alert resourceful tale of all details + important things — Excellent Molly Book

The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness -- in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.
  christinejoseph | Feb 27, 2016 |
It took me a while to become engaged with this book, but once I did, i didn't want to stop listening to it. ( )
  KylaS | Feb 18, 2016 |
One of my very favorite books from childhood, this never grows old. ( )
  Oodles | Feb 16, 2016 |
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

★★★★★ ♥

This is one of those classic books that I somehow managed to miss earlier in my life. And what a misfortune it is that it took me so long to get to this wonderful book!

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not a fast-paced story. It’s the slow, smooth coming-of-age story of Francie Nolan and her family. But I wouldn’t want it any other way. I adored Francie from the very beginning and I could not put this book down. Her and her family were very relatable, at least to me. Even though this was written in the 1940s and takes place in the very early 1900s, it was still quite relevant today. I was rooting for Francie the whole time and I was so pleased with the ending. It was well written. I can see why this is a classic and this is one of the few that I will reread throughout the years. Love love love.
( )
  UberButter | Feb 9, 2016 |
An incredible story of overcoming adversity and how it shapes your life. I loved Francie and didnt want this story to end. This story reminded me a lot of Angela's Ashes. It will stick with me for a long time. ( )
  Koren56 | Feb 4, 2016 |
So many reviews were already written about this book. So I only thank want to thank a very good friend for recommending and lending me this gem. I had very special hours reading it. I laughed and cried with the characters and enjoyed reading about their lives in a country and a time far away from my own, but nevertheless finding similarities between my life and my feelings and theirs. ( )
  Ellemir | Feb 1, 2016 |
This book reminds me of Henry Roth's CALL IT SLEEP - though I think this book wallows and winds differently; it calls to a more romantic realism. Poverty is almost a character in this novel, but Francie is the star that shines in her battle against all odds. A timeless story. ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
I read it when I was a teen and loved it. Am going to hunt up the book to read again and see if I like it again. ( )
  Greymowser | Jan 23, 2016 |
How have I not read this before?! Such a wonderful snapshot of life and the human struggle to become more than what we are and to leave a legacy of something more that what we are. ( )
  Jen.ODriscoll.Lemon | Jan 23, 2016 |
How have I not read this before?! Such a wonderful snapshot of life and the human struggle to become more than what we are and to leave a legacy of something more that what we are. ( )
  Jen.ODriscoll.Lemon | Jan 23, 2016 |
The book that broke my reading hiatus of the past year. A good one to do so with, I think.

I picked this up at the library a couple days ago. My first time there (shameful since we've been in this area for a couple years now), I was walking around in the daze of "what to check out, what to check out" and this title popped off the shelf at me. And I was back in Mrs. Atkins' Creative Writing class during memoir-writing listening to her tell us about her love of Francie.

I can imagine waxing on a bit about this book myself someday. Not necessarily about Francie so much so as all the characters combined, along with the very "human" dialogue and expression. It paints a very clear picture of kids growing up too fast, how the place you live and the people you live with become parts of you, and how life's pretty good even if it isn't so grand as long as you have your own personal Brooklyn. ( )
  lemotamant898 | Jan 18, 2016 |
I liked it. Read it after reading another book that noted it was a favorite book among soldiers during WWII. In a way, it reminded me the books Plainsong and Brooklyn. ( )
  Charlie-Ravioli | Jan 18, 2016 |
Since this is a classic, I honestly expected something more sedate, more pedantic, and less interesting. Instead, I discovered a quirky, charming, poignant, honest book that felt very modern. In style, it could have been written by an excellent writer today, but the details of life probably wouldn't have felt so real or believable.

I love coming-of-age books, but this is even more. It's a nearly epic story of Francie's family in the immigrant slums of Brooklyn, from before her birth and through most of her teens. They struggle to persevere through poverty and other difficulties, but this generally isn't a somber book; Francie's perspective is aware but appreciative. The depth of the writer's understanding (Francie's in retrospect) is touching. We discover her extended family's secrets and flaws, why each person is lovable; we ache for their heartaches and we delight in their joys. I loved this book and loved Francie, the observant little girl who treasured life in Brooklyn. ( )
  Connie-D | Jan 17, 2016 |
This is a wonderful classic coming of age novel that I think everyone should read. ( )
  kimberwolf | Jan 16, 2016 |
Set in the early 1900's in Brooklyn, NY, the story is narrated by Francie Nolan the oldest child of Kate and Johnny. To say that the family is poor would be a gross understatement as the 4 Nolan's (including younger brother Neely) rarely have enough food, warm clothing or fuel for their heater. Johnny is a handsome Irish singing waiter who, although he loves his family desperately, is a drunk who is unable to keep a steady job. Kate is the beautiful daughter of strong willed immigrant parents. Francie is a good child, obedient and hard-working, also a gifted writer and does well at school but Francie is always aware that Neely is her mother's favorite. When Johnny succumbs to his life of hard-drinking school is over for Francie because the family needs the wages she can earn but Neely is able to continue his studies. Francie is determined that she will get an education somehow and she manages to enrol in college courses without a high school diploma. Kate insists that she needs to do more for Neely as Kate knows that Francie will always be alright.

Truthfully I hesitated to listen to this book on audio as I had tried to read the novel awhile ago and was bored. The audio, read by Kate Burton, was very well done and held my interest throughout. I really like Francie and admire her character very much. Although Kate is a devoted mother I disliked the fact that she overtly favored Neely and did not realize what a gem she had in her eldest daughter. I am glad that I finished the book and it is one that I will always remember.
( )
  Ellen_R | Jan 15, 2016 |
The story of Francie Nolan and her family growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1900's. I feel inlove with Francie and wanted to know more about what happened to her. Sad in parts but a great book. ( )
  RachelNF | Jan 15, 2016 |
I remember reading this as a child, though much of it must have been over my head. My parents were very progressive in educating us about sex, so I may have had a better idea than most children about what was going on. The Vintage Book Circle had a wonderful discussion of this book. We were all very impressed by the depth and complexity of the characters. We all had favorite moments. We appreciated the hopeful, upbeat positive outlook of these powerful people in spite of their dire circumstances. I cheered for Aunt Sissy when she confronted Francie's teacher. I loved the part where Francie goes out on the fire escape with her glass of ice water and peppermint chips. I had no fire escape, but I was always trying to find a spot like that as I was growing up. I sucked root beer barrels with my water and found hidey places on the roof, in the bushes and in my walk-in closet. This is a very special book. ( )
  njcur | Oct 23, 2015 |
This story is set in Brooklyn in 1912 through 1917. It follows the life of a poor family, the Nolans, mainly from the point of view of the precocious Francie. I really liked it, I thought it was an easy read, the characters were likable and relatable. I even liked Johnny (the drunken father), I have a soft spot for characters who are truthful with themselves. He knew he was a drunk, he tried to do right by his family, but he never denied what he was. I think stopping drinking is what actually killed him, he was going through withdrawal and that is why his hands shook so. I loved that Francie had a love of reading and how her mother cultivated it. I understand Katie's desperation to give her kids a better life than she had herself, I think that is what all parents want. I can relate to the being poor, although as a kid we weren’t that bad off, or if we were my parents did a better job of hiding it that Katie did. I didn’t like the ending though, the whole novel felt so real and gritty, and then the fairytale came true that they had enough money and the kids could finish school thanks to Daddy Warbucks, I mean officer McShane. If Francie had continued to fight and put herself through school it would have seemed much truer to the story to me and I would have been happier. But overall I liked the book.
For additional reviews please see my blog at www.adventuresofabibliophile.blogspot.com
  Serinde24 | Sep 27, 2015 |
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