A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith is a beautiful novel. It is a story about life - more specifically Francie Nolan's life.
The story spans her life starting with her birth and finishing at the point when she has grown up and she and her family are leaving Brooklyn. Francie is not a remarkable person, she does not grow up to be famous or do great things. This novel is simply the story of a typical poor family growing up in Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th Century.
The story does not run in chronological order all the time. It often tells unrelated anecdotes - some sad, some hopeful - of the Nolans' lives. Through it all one gets a sense of change and growth, of Francie growing up and maturing, and of the world and people around her changing. Overall it is neither a sad nor a happy book. Rather it, like life, is a mixture of both. The ending itself seems to be a sad, regretful one. Though Francie has grown up, is getting an education, and is now moving to a wealthier neighbourhood, she is leaving her former life behind. You cannot help reminiscing about the good times the Nolans - and through them, you yourself - have had growing up in Brooklyn. There are so many happy memories you wish you could live over and over again, and it seems like the future can only get worse and more dull.
It's analagous to living in a field of wild flowers where it's a struggle to survive, but through that struggle, you find that you are really' that you're wild and free. Then you move to a garden plot where you are given rich soil and water, but you are restricted to your straight row within a certain plot.
The main theme in this novel is one of perseverance. The title itself, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, is a metaphor for the theme. In Francie's backyard there is a tree that has cracked the concrete, and grown up through it. This tree has been cut down several times and has had bonfires built on top of it to burn out its root system. Despite all these hardships, it manages to grow and to flourish into a beautiful tree.
Francie and the Nolans are growing up in Brooklyn, a harsh setting, where they must scramble for their next meal. Francie's mother must work for hours cleaning other people's houses, ruining her beautiful hands. Francie and her younger brother, Neeley, collect junk and sell it for pennies. Someone who can read and write is rare, and the people are crude and violent.
Despite all this hardship, Francie manages to find joy and happiness and to grow and to flourish. Francie is a thoughtful and imaginative child. She thinks about what people say and how they act and often has surprising insights into their lives. She has a flare for embellishments and writes beautiful poems about forests she has never seen. She gets A+ on all her compositions until she grows older and starts writing about things that are important to her; her life and her father's drinking. Then her teacher tells her that she is writing about ugliness and she should burn these terrible compositions because one does not write about ugliness.
As Francie grows older she uses her thoughtful insights to her advantage and her imagination serves as an escape from her harsh life. Her poverty teaches her to be resourceful and she manages to go through school and help support her family at the same time. She learns hard work and morality from her mother, Katie, and a love of life from her father, Johnny. Johnny, before he died, was a loving father who would burst into song at any moment and was always having 'notions' and taking the children places. His only problem was that he was weak. At the same time as intending to take Francie somewhere exciting, he would also convince himself that he was a horrible father and life was too much for him. That was when he would begin to drink and it would take a crisis to make him stop. He was not a bad drunk, he only became thoughtful and morose, but eventually the alcohol killed him.
There is much foreshadowing in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Johnny's death, for example, is foreshadowed. During her 13th year Francie kept a diary = here are some excerpts:
- January 10: Papa sick today.
- April 2: Papa hasn't worked for three weeks. There's something wrong with his hands. They shake so much he can't hold anything.
- May 10: Papa sick. Had bad nightmares in the daytime and screamed. I had to get Aunt Sissy.
Katie's (Francie's mother) marriage to Sergeant Michael McShane is foreshadowed. Both of them have sick spouses who aren't expected to last much longer. When McShane looks at her, the fair Katie is self-conscious and puts on gloves to hide her scarred hands. The book momentarily shifts its focus to McShane and he thinks warmly of Katie. Before he is going to come to their house Katie asks Francie how she would like him for a father. There aren't really any other major events to be foreshadowed, only small anecdotes.
This book was very enjoyable to read. It was very believable, all the characters had believable personalities, and each had their share of good and bad traits. The writing style was very smooth and flowing, creating images from the written word. The plot was not especially interesting because nothing much happened, but the plot was not the important part of the story. It was a slow-moving and somehow relaxing book and very thought-provoking. It made the reader think mostly about human nature; its good aspects and its bad aspects. This was a story about life; overall not sad or happy but, like life, beautiful. It created the impression of time running out, making the reader want their life to be always filled with things. There were so many experiences to be had, emotions to be felt and moments to be shared, that life cannot possibly be long enough. There was one paragraph (referring to a time capsule she had just made) which accurately described this feeling:
If I open this envelope 50 years from now, I will be again as I am now and there will be no growing old for me. There's a long, long time yet before 50 years; millions of hours of time. But one hour has gone already since I sat here; one hour less to live; one hour gone away from all the hours of my life.
Dear God1, let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry; have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere - be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honourable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.
Betty Smith was the author and collaborator of 70 one-act plays, and had already won the Avery Hopwood Award for playwriting before she launched her writing career. Before she published A Tree Grows In Brooklyn as an autobiographical novel in 1943, it had been conceived as a play called Francie Nolan in 1930. In 1946, it was made into a successful film directed by Elia Kazan and starring Dorothy McGuire, Joan Blondell, James Dunn, Ted Donaldson, Lloyd Nolan, James Gleason and Peggy Ann Garner. It won 'Best Screenplay' and 'Best Supporting Actor' (Dunn) that same year. It was turned into a musical in 1951 with music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Betty Smith also wrote Tomorrow Will Be Better (1947), Maggie-Now (1958), and Joy in the Morning (1963). She died in 1972.