A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

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.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. This one has been on my TBR-list for years. Heard much good about it and perhaps I should see if I can find it and READ it instead of saying that I am going to….would you consider it a classic? I am joining a small classic-challenge next year, so if it fits there it would be an added bonus 🙂

  2. I loved this book both times I read it.  The disjointed narrative didn’t bother me – rather, it felt like the age Francie was when the stories were taking place.  It’s all over the place as a little girl, slow, savory, but then as she gets older, it gets faster, less detailed, more banal.  Francie grows and the years become shorter to her, the way they do to all children, and time begins to pass by too fast for her to experience.  To me, the narrative actually goes through the same growing-up transformation as the character.  I would have loved, of course, for the book to have been three times and long and to have experienced all of her more adult feelings the same way we experienced her childlike ones, but I understand why she may have written it the way she did.

    One of the most powerful themes for me was people not learning from their suffering.  From the very beginning, when Francie’s brother yells “rag picker” at the other kids after being humiliated not long before the same way, that theme is solid.  When the children taunt each other about lice, same thing.  A great quote: “They learned no compassion from their own anguish.  Thus their suffering was wasted.”  How often do we do this in life?

    One of the things I really like about this book is that while Betty Smith is very clear what she thinks people should be like, she doesn’t inflict her moral lessons on the reader.  She shows why she thinks the way she thinks, and leaves it to us to choose how to behave.

    Sorry you didn’t like the book more.  I think probably the reasons you mentioned are why this is only considered a borderline classic.

  3. I’m so sorry that you didn’t love this book!  It’s one of my all time favorites.  But when we read it for book club there were mixed reactions from the gals.  Some felt the same way you did, some found it boring, and others (like me) loved it.

    I too identified with her love of reading, but it didn’t bother me that books did not remain a focus of the story.  Real life got in the way, and she began to grow up – both points that you brought up in your review.

    This is generally a slow moving book, but I really do love.  I’m glad you read it anyway!

  4. Louise, I’d consider it a classic — see Amanda’s comment too.

    Amanda, I think, despite the things I didn’t like about it, I’d still consider it a classic. And you’re right, the disjointed narrative is kind of like life. I see one summer from my childhood in particular focus, but the others end up being blurred in memory. I may reread this book again some day. Maybe part of my problem was comparing it to To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t know what I did, but it made it harder to appreciate. I also agree that Betty Smith wasn’t too preachy but certainly got her point across!

    Heather J., I had a hard time writing the review because it seems like it is a favorite book for so many people! How do I admit I didn’t love it? But even after all I said, I didn’t hate it, and I might recommend it or read it again some day!

  5. Thanks all for the valuable comments. I will see if I can find this either in the library or as a used book. And if I love it, I can always buy a new copy 😉

  6. Late post. I read this when I was 15 (I left home at 15 to be on my own) and I found it to be marvelous. It gave me such strength and when I began my medcial practice, I remembered from the story what it was like to for some patients just get to an appointment much less be scrubbed and clean.
    I have never looked down on any human and this book helped me realize that we all come from such different backgrounds!
    Hey, I worked as a motel maid, waitressed, worked as a dishwasher and scrubbed pots and pans in hot, steamy kitchens just to get through high school! A full scholarship to college was a dream come true!

  7. Hi Helen, You sure have done a lot in your life! Yeah, this book is a great reminder of different how everyone has different backgrounds. I’m glad you liked this too! I think I would have absolutely loved it when I was 15.

  8. Pingback: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith « The Zen Leaf
  9. This book is one of my favorites, just because Betty Smith does express the feelings of Francie Nolan so well.

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