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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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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 |
A classic coming-of-age novel for girls. Whether you're 13 or 103 this book is not to be missed.

Francie comes from a family so poor they sometimes go for days without food, but in reading this novel what always comes through is the love the family has for each other, the strength of character each member of the family has, the humor, intelligence and good old-fashioned Irish storytelling.

Furthermore, Francie is a lover of books, determined to read her way through every book in their local public library. Avid readers will recognize themselves in Francie, will love her for it, and will love Betty Smith's book. ( )
  bkwurm | Jan 8, 2014 |
This enduring story is a reminder that what matters most in good storytelling is having compelling characters. So much about this book violates so-called rules that writers are taught today. The point-of-view is distant omniscient. The author frequently tells vs show. The writing is at times straightforward to the point of being simplistic.

In some ways, the novel is more a series of anecdotes portraying the hardships and tender moments of Francie Nolan’s childhood. The plot progresses mostly because she gets older and wiser about the world. There’s no dramatic climax at the end.

Yet this moving tale of a girl growing up in hard times in early 20th century Brooklyn still manages to captivate the reader. After all, the hero’s journey is supposed to be about a character striving against all odds to reach a worthwhile goal While the plot may not be as tightly woven or action packed as some of today’s novels, there can be no question that Francie Nolan’s journey is heroic. We root for her the whole way, agonizing through her tough times and celebrating her triumphs.

This is a simple tale, beautifully told, that affirms nothing less than the resilience of the human spirit. ( )
  dlitwack | Dec 27, 2013 |
Francie Nolan has joined the ranks of one of my favorite girl characters. Although the book is set in the distinct and well-depicted locale of pre-World War I Brooklyn, NY, she is a type familiar to many of us here on LT: a thinker, a watcher, a writer, and above all a reader. The book opens with eleven-year-old Francie sitting on her fire escape, watching the life buzzing in the tenements around her and reading in the shade of the big tree which dominates the courtyard. Like Francie, the tree is tenacious, thriving in an environment that seems barely able to sustain life.

Francie's parent are Irish-American, children of immigrants, and poor, yet loving. Katie marries young, works hard, and tries to give her children a better life. According to her mother, Francie's grandmother, the road to American success can be achieved by reading Shakespeare and the Bible every day and saving pennies every week in order to someday own land of your own. Katie's husband, Johnny, is funny and talented, able to sing and dance his way into Katie's heart, but unable to hold a steady job due to his drinking. Despite their dire straights as a result, Francie loves her father, and he nurtures something in her that practical Katie cannot.

Francie and her younger brother Neeley don't feel deprived, because much of Brooklyn lives as they do, and in fact they enjoy many aspects of their life. Francie, however, has an insatiable thirst: for books, for knowledge, for life, and that sets her apart from other children her age. Being an outsider sharpens her powers of observation, and her thoughts and writing reflect it. Ambitious, Francie fanangles her way into a better school, and when forced to leave school and go to work to help support the family, she is able to get a job that not only pays well, but allows her to continue learning. Life is not easy, and Francie is forced to grow up in a hurry, but the spirit of the book is one of hope and redemption.

The author herself grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and her own life is the framework for Francie's story. As a result, the setting is vibrant with life, and the story rings true on a deeper level than simply the plot. Although I think young women would enjoy this as a coming of age story, I think the book has a richness and meaning that might not be appreciated without some life experiences behind one. Well-done. ( )
1 vote labfs39 | Dec 14, 2013 |
Very good book. Interesting book about being poor in Brooklyn in the 1900's. Reminded me of Angela's Ashes. It's about surviving. ( )
  Kristelh | Nov 16, 2013 |
Love, love, looooove this book! One of the best ever written! ( )
  KristinaMiranda | Oct 26, 2013 |
This book is one of those you always see on lists of favourites or "must read" books. I guess I can understand that but it didn't grab me as I thought it would. It's not bad but I don't think it is as well written as it should be for a classic.

Francie Nolan is a young girl living in a tenement in Brooklyn with her brother, Neeley, and her mother and father. Her father is an alcoholic and works, intermittently, as a singing waiter. Because his money isn't enough to live on the mother has to clean apartments and the kids have to sell scrap. Even then the money for food, clothing and heating fuel is often lacking. Francie is a loner and a dreamer and a reader. The fire escape from their apartment is in the boughs of a tree and it is the perfect place to read and dream. Hence the title.

We follow Francie from her pre-school years until she is working and attending college. Her story is certainly one of triumphing over adversity and it seems to be autobiographical. It is astonishing that a young woman from that background could go on to write best-selling books and dramas. Francie's grandmother was right that the key to improvement is reading and writing. ( )
  gypsysmom | Oct 16, 2013 |
3.5 stars

This book tells the story of Francie as she grows up in Brooklyn in the early 20th century.

I liked the book, but wasn't wowed by it like so many other people. It took quite a while for me to get into it at the start. I guess there is also some disappointment that it didn't live up to everyone's glowing reviews. Overall, it was still good, just nothing to really “write home about” for me. ( )
  LibraryCin | Oct 1, 2013 |
One of my favorite books of all time, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a book I purchase for each of my nieces as they make the journey from child to adult, and so far, each of them counts this book among their all-time favorites as well.

A coming-of-age story, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn spans across several years shortly after the turn of the 20th century and deals with such issues as poverty and alcoholism around the time of World War I, but the main theme is about rising above adversity and difficulty to succeed.

Beautifully written, Betty Smith tells her tale in an engaging and timeless way. My two older nieces (ages 20 and 16) both love this book as much as I do. ( )
  skatoulaki | Sep 12, 2013 |
I thoroughly enjoyed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and I don't understand why every high schooler in the country isn't assigned this book. This taught me WAY more about my own life than all those Jane Austen books ever did. I'll admit that it slows down about 75% of the way through, but you're so in love with the characters by that point that you'll stick with it anyway. Highly recommended! ( )
  JLSmither | Aug 22, 2013 |
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