Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Even Neeley said it would be a good thing for her to go far off to college – she might get rid of her Brooklyn accent that way. But Francie didn’t want to get rid of it any more than she wanted to get rid of her name.  It meant that she belonged some place. She was a Brooklyn girl with a Brooklyn name and a Brooklyn accent. She didn’t want to change into a bit of this and a bit of that.

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Trees always make good metaphors and children growing up in Brooklyn, New York at the turn of the Twentieth Century always make good stories.  Perhaps “always” is a strong word but after reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, I can’t help but think this statement more universally true than I would have before I read it.

This novel tells the story of Francie Nolan, her family and their European immigrant neighbors in Brooklyn.  It encompasses the poverty, prejudice, disappointments of the time and place but emphasizes the strength, determination and will-power of a group of people set on making good in this “new world”.

Katie, Francie’s mother, focuses her efforts on getting her children (Neeley is Francie’s brother) an education.  Tirelessly working and tirelessly saving money, she manages to overcome the obstacles of her time to slowly bring this dream to fruition.

The novel does not have a central plot but contains groupings of stories that run together to give a beautiful portrait of Francie as a child growing into a teenager and an adult. Francie’s adoration for her father, whose love of music and of alcohol tends to keep the family in poverty, is neither sentimental nor unrealistic.  Johnny Nolan does his best to give his children what they need.  He has an ability to inspire Francie even if he is unable to inspire himself.

Most of the novel is from Francie’s point of view in third person while occasionally deviating to Johnny, Katie and Neeley. Smith skillfully manages to write in a style that seems to fit Francie’s age.  She uses a more innocent and simple style as Francie explains the wonders of her impoverished world as a young child.  Smith gradually allows her style to become more complex as Francie’s understanding of her world becomes less innocent.

Just like the tree that continues to grow no matter what, hope is never lost in this novel and at the risk of sounding cliche, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a shining testament to the human spirit. It now has a place on my list of favorites.

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2 responses to “Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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