Betty Smith expertly recreates the 1912 Brooklyn of 11-year-old Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Through Betty Smith’s words, I learned of the awfulness of enduring agonizing hunger and dire poverty in the tenements of Brooklyn in a volatile time.
But Francie’s poverty is only part of Francie’s story. As Francie grows from age 11 to age 15, she learns of the strength of family and love and what it means to truly desire education. Her story is one of survival, but also one of self-realization.
I really, really wanted to love A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: it has a great message of hope and growth. And Francie’s discovery of the harsh realities of life reminded me of Scout’s learned lessons in To Kill a Mockingbird, which is my favorite novel. But while I loved and appreciated the themes and the incredible control of setting in Smith’s novel, I failed to feel engaged in it. I felt the story was unevenly developed and overall lacked a framework that may have better captured the events of Francie’s life.
While in To Kill a Mockingbird Scout Finch tells her story in first person, framed as a recollection when she is an adult, Francie’s story is told by an omniscient narrator of the future. The narration of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, then, felt disjointed to me: the first 80 pages detail one summer 1912 day when Francie sells junk, buys candy, and reads in the fire escape. But then book two is a flashback to how Francie’s life began. The captivating story young Francie in book one is never resumed from that point: The story takes off, passes the 11-year-old Francie, and continues telling of Francie’s growth and development into a young woman.
The Beauty of Poverty
As a child Francie learned to ignore the cruel and ugly around her and embrace the beautiful. But it was painful for her to learn where she stood in other’s eyes. At school, she sat with the ignored dirty children in the back of the room. And she and her brother knew hunger. When they had no food in the house, their mother led them in a game of “explorer,” pretending they were trying to make it to the North Pole and awaiting provisions.
Once, after Francie grew up a little, she said to her mother:
“When explores get hungry and suffer like that, it’s for a reason. Something big comes out of it. They discover the North Pole. But what big thing comes out of us being hungry like that?”
Katie looked tired all of a sudden. She said something Francie didn’t understand at the time. She said, “You found the catch in it.” (page 218)
Francie loves her father, despite his failures, and when she writes stories for a class in school, she includes what she finds beautiful about her father; “She tried to show that, in spite of his shortcoming, he had been a good father and a kindly man” (page 321). But when her teacher read them, Francie was scolded because “Poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose.” (page 321).
Francie knew her stories were more real than anything her teacher could imagine, and yet the teacher could not understand.
(Hightlight for spoiler) In the end, when it becomes apparent that their youngest sibling may not to endure such painful poverty, Francie and her brother feel sorry for her. They were glad for their lives and found beauty in them. (However, they don’t want their sister to suffer.)
The Education of Francie
Because of the odd organization, I felt important themes weren’t fully developed. For example, one important theme in the novel was the power of education and reading:
Oh, magic hour when a child first knows it can read printed words! … From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. (page 166)
I loved the chapter in which Francie learned to read. It was powerfully written and got me excited for my own ability to read. Francie’s discovery of reading, however, almost became a footnote in the midst of the other things Francie experienced. While her goal became to read a book every day of her life, we only rarely heard mention of it because she went off to work. She rarely read on the fire escape in the novel.
I suppose such fleeting dreams are a part of every young girl’s life; maybe Betty Smith meant to show how fleeting such passion is in the cruel reality of an impoverished life. But it was still a disappointment to me, especially since the novel seemed to place such emphasis on education and reading. (In the first 80 pages, the reading on the fire escape was built up as the most important thing she did every day. After the flashback, there seemed only small mention of it.)
Growing a Tree
By far the greatest strength of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the setting. Betty Smith is expert at creating a scene through minimal language. As I read of Francie sitting on the fire escape, reading and watching the world, I felt I would still find that world if I were to visit Brooklyn today. The 1912 streets Smith describes, writing in the 1940s, and the children running down it likewise were craftily conjured. I may read this novel again just for the believable historical setting it creates.
All comes full circle in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Francie, age 11, sits in the fire escape surround by tree branches reading and watching a girl prepare for her date. By the end, she is the girl preparing for a date as a different young girl sits in a fire escape reading. Francie is just one tree that grew in Brooklyn.
While Francie Nolan’s story of personal growth is a memorable one, I felt better organization and framework could have captured it better. Unfortunately, I can’t say I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.