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Betty Smith (1) (1896–1972)

Author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

For other authors named Betty Smith, see the disambiguation page.

11+ Works 18,594 Members 486 Reviews 35 Favorited

About the Author

Betty Smith, December 15, 1896 - January 17, 1972 Betty Smith was born December 15, 1896, in Brooklyn, New York. She attended grammar school in Brooklyn, completing only the eighth grade. After leaving school at the age of fourteen, she worked in a factory, in retail and clerical jobs in New York show more City and eventually became a reader and editor for Dramatists Play Service, as well as an actress and playwright for the Federal Theater project and a radio actress. She attended the University of Michigan, from 1927 to 1930, as a special student. While attending the University of Michigan, some of her one-act plays were published, and she also worked as a feature writer for NEA (a newspaper syndicate) and wrote columns for the Detroit Free Press. She went on to Yale University Drama School, from 1930 to 1934. Smith became a member of the faculty of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, from 1945 till 1946. She was a member of the Authors League and the Dramatists Guild. Smith is perhaps best known for her work "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," which became an overnight success for the first time writer. She won the Avery and Jule Hopwood first prize of $1,000 in 1931; the Rockefeller fellowship in playwriting and Rockefeller Dramatists Guild playwriting fellowship while at Yale and the Sir Walter Raleigh award for fiction in 1958, for "Maggie--Now." Betty Smith died on January 17, 1972. (Bowker Author Biography) show less

Works by Betty Smith

Associated Works


20th century (169) alcoholism (79) America (54) American (135) American fiction (58) American literature (254) bildungsroman (47) book club (65) Brooklyn (360) childhood (82) classic (481) classic literature (61) classics (460) coming of age (410) ebook (50) family (158) favorite (57) favorites (117) fiction (1,856) goodreads (45) growing up (48) historical (56) historical fiction (297) immigrants (90) Kindle (64) literature (160) marriage (46) New York (349) New York City (165) novel (226) NYC (43) own (110) paperback (41) poverty (280) read (227) to-read (1,016) unread (75) USA (59) YA (105) young adult (163)

Common Knowledge

Legal name
Smith, Betty Wehner
Wehner, Elisabeth Lillian (born)
Date of death
Burial location
Legion Street Cemetery, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA
Brooklyn, New York, USA
Place of death
Shelton, Connecticut, USA
Places of residence
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, USA
Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Yale School of Drama
Awards and honors
Rockefeller Fellowship (1940)
Short biography
Betty Smith was born Elizabeth (or Elisabeth) Wehner in Brooklyn, New York, to parents who were German immigrants. She attended school until age 14, when she was obliged to go to work to help support the family. She worked at a succession of jobs, including making tissue flowers at a factory and at a press clipping bureau. In 1919, she married George Smith, a fellow German-American, and moved with him to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he went to law school at the University of Michigan. The couple had two children and Betty waited until they were in school to complete her higher education. Although she had not finished high school, in 1927 she was permitted to enroll in classes, and studied journalism, literature, writing, and drama.
She attended the Yale University School of Drama from 1931 to 1934, and had two one-act plays produced in 1932. In 1938, she and her first husband divorced, and she moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She remarried to Joseph Jones, a newspaper columnist, in 1943, the same year in which she published A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, her highly autobiographical novel. It was a runaway bestseller. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was adapted into a famous 1945 film and several television versions, and has proven to be her most enduring work. She went on to become a well-known playwright, receiving many awards and fellowships. Her other novels include Tomorrow Will Be Better (1947), Maggie-Now (1958) and Joy in the Morning (1963).



A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Group Read (August 1, 2012) in 75 Books Challenge for 2012 (August 2012)


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.
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ghneumann | 444 other reviews | Jun 14, 2024 |
Trees grow in neglected areas, tenement districts. The trees come first, then poor foreigners follow. A tree that likes poor people. The poor and those who have money have different views of each other. Different views about why people are in poverty. This book highlights the misunderstandings of assumptions about those within different social classes. A secret to success within this book, to get out of poverty, is the ability to read. Getting as much education as possible.

Francie grows up poor, but has relatives that desire success. They work very hard not only to survive, but get ahead. This is a story of how Francie grows up. A story of how Francie’s mind changes about various ideas, and how Francie impacts those who interact with Francie. With a love of books and an incessant need to improve upon ideas.

The poor in this book are described as those who struggle to survive, and get ahead. Working hard to kept what they have. A dislike of charity, and the humiliation that it brings with it. A want to not feel the need to save as much as possible of everything.

There is a clash between hope and effort. Not just between the characters, but the reason for immigrating. The purpose of coming to America was that it was supposedly a place of hope. Where circumstances could be improved. With those improvements come over the generations. Slowey but surely trying to help the next generation achieve more than they and their predecessors had.

Education, specifically reading, being one of the skills that are impressed as a need for social advancement. The library having a lot of importance, given that it provides access to books. With help from Katie’s mother, Katie used the information to instill a want to read in Katie’s daughter Francie. Growing up, Francie was exposed to a lot of books, and loved to read books.

School is another important source of knowledge. But not all schools want to educate the children. With very mean children. Francie still appreciated school in spite of the cruelties. The cruelties made Francie really appreciate the next school, and a willing to walk a lot to the better school.

Whenever Francie saw ideas that could be improved upon, the future that Francie saw for Francie changed. Wanting to be an integral part of the reason for the improvement. An incessant need to improve ideas.

Francie became liable to lie. Although given somewhat poor ideas on the delineation between lying and a story, advice was given for Francie to write the truth. Francie found an outlet in writing, in order to keep a dividing line between truth and fiction. A discrepancy between what is true and what is beautiful, between the real misery and the hope.

The book can be a bit difficult to read, with poor flow. The historical context and situations have changed. Many of the interactions and events lack emotional appeal, but their representation makes them more realistic.
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Eugene_Kernes | 444 other reviews | Jun 4, 2024 |
This book was sitting on my shelf for quite a while, I ended up donating it only to buy another copy from Books-A-Million. Finally, I picked it up and fell in love with it. I didn't know if I was ready for a family drama, but it turned out to be exactly what I needed at the exact moment I picked it up. Francie Nolan has soared up on the list of my favorite fictional characters of all time; to be honest, you might not like the book as much if you are a "realist". However, if you are a dreamer and see the world much differently than your peers, you will love it!

I particularly liked her relationship with her mother. Yes, it was a co-dependent relationship with a lack of affection, but this made the moments where affection was shown between them that much more powerful. Francie sees so much and understands so much, and you watch her grow and understand the world, to accept and make the most of the life she has, to find the light in the darkest circumstances. Yeah, I love this book and highly recommend it, especially if it has been sitting on your shelf collecting dust for the last five years.
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tayswift1477 | 444 other reviews | May 15, 2024 |
Among the most fervent and outspoken of coming-of-age novels in American literature that I've read, full to the brim with life sketches as pictorial as David Copperfield and with an epic scope as sweeping as East of Eden. Betty Smith invites us into a breathtaking depiction of New York with the same richness that Woody Allen's Manhattan did for the big screen, visualized from the perspective of an aspiring and headstrong Francie Nolan raised in the heart of poverty-stricken Brooklyn. This novel expresses a hope for American immigrants at the turn of the century that isn't to be found in Upton Sinclair's the Jungle, and although Francie's relatives are far from perfect, their love and care for each other is irrefutable and irrepressible. Francie is met with experiences and choices that are as various and unique as any uncommon family, and their stories are forever memorable as the small things that are best in a simple life.… (more)
TheBooksofWrath | 444 other reviews | Apr 18, 2024 |


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