A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith
completed October 2010
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn centers around the family of Francie Nolan. She grows up in poverty with her mother Katie, as the primary bread-winner; an alcoholic father, Johnny; and a brother Neeley, a year younger than her.
I have sat down several times and tried to create a post that would share my thoughts on this books, but it has been so difficult. I finished it two months ago and I just don't know what to say. Not much happens in this novel, but the characters are what make it beautiful. Francie is the center of the novel, and I love her. She begins as the fragile little baby who barely survives and transforms into this confident, independent woman who is in a position to succeed. Her life is exceedingly difficult. I can't even imagine dealing with some of her challenges, but she remains optimistic. She avoids the bitterness that so often envelops people who have suffered.
It would be so easy to hate Johnny, a drunkard father who can't provide for his family. I couldn't hate him. He was trapped by his alcoholism and sorrow. Besides not providing for his family, he was the best father he could be, considering his circumstances. The relationship he had with Francie was precious. She needed that extra attention because her mother didn't love her enough. The scene at her graduation with the roses was one of the most poignant in the book.
My only complaint, which is tiny, is that the back-story of Francie's extended family slowed down the pace. I understand the importance that the information played in creating understanding and empathy for the characters, but they seemed a little more drawn out than necessary.
The fact that I related so much to Francie made this book so memorable to me. I know how she felt. I grew up poor, not to the extent of Francie, but we were barely able to meet our needs let alone wants. I too was driven to obtain an education so that I could avoid the same fate for my future family. My parents never had to worry about me because I was self-motivated. I feel like my parents focused on the other children in my family because they needed it more than I did. I wasn't noticed for consistently perfect marks while my brother was lavished with praise for simply graduating high school. My parents were unable to help me financially so I paid my own way through college by scholarships, working part-time during school, and working full-time during the summer. It was tough, but there was a happy ending for me.
If you've read the book, you can see why my heart went out to Francie, and I had mild contempt for Katie (as a mother, I can't understand how one child can be favored above another). Although the reader doesn't see the end result for Francie, I knew when I finished that she would have a happy ending too. Francie has to succeed because she wouldn't settle for failure.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is beautifully written. I don't know how Betty Smith managed to write a book that involves such difficult subject matters and not have it turn out to be depressing, but rather thought-provoking and hopeful. I wish I hadn't waited so long to read it. If you haven't read it already, you really should.