Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

For their spending money Francie and Neeley Nolan rely on a few pennies they collect from the junk collector every Saturday. Katie, their mother, works as a janitor in a Brooklyn tenement, and the money she and their father earn—he from his Saturday-night jobs as a singing waiter—is barely enough to keep the family alive and clothed.

After their Saturday-morning trips with the rags, metal, and rubber they collect during the week, Francie visits the library. She is methodically going through its contents in alphabetical order by reading a book each day, but on Saturdays she allows herself the luxury of breaking the sequence. At home, sitting on the fire escape, she can look up from her book and watch her neighbors’ preparations for Saturday night. A tree grows in the yard; Francie watches it from season to season during her long Saturday afternoons.

At five o’clock, when her father comes home, Francie irons his waiter’s apron and then goes to the dry-goods store to buy the paper collar and muslin dickey that will last him for the evening. It is her special Saturday-night privilege to sleep in the front room, and there she can watch the people in the street. She gets up briefly at two in the morning when her father comes home and is given a share of the delicacies he salvages from the wedding or party at which he served. Then, while her parents talk far into the night, Francie fixes Saturday’s happenings in her mind and gradually drifts off to sleep.

Johnny Nolan and Katie Rommely meet when he is nineteen and she is seventeen, and they are married four months later. In a year’s time, Francie is born. Johnny, unable to bear the sight of Katie in labor, gets drunk, and when the water pipes burst at the school in which he is janitor, he is discharged. Neeley is born soon after Francie’s first birthday. By that time, Johnny is drinking so heavily that Katie knows she can no longer rely on him for the family’s support. In return for free rent, the Nolans move to a house in which Katie can be janitor.

Francie is not sent to school until she is seven, and Neeley is old enough to go with her. In that way the children are able to protect each other from would-be tormentors. Seated two-at-a-desk among the other poverty-stricken children, Francie soon grows to look forward to the weekly visits of her art and music teachers. They are the sunshine of her school days.

By pretending that Francie goes to live with relatives, Johnny is able to have her transferred to another school that Francie sees on one of her walks. A long way from home, it is, nevertheless, an improvement over the old one. Most of the children are of American parentage and are not exploited by cruel teachers, as are those from immigrant families.

Francie notes time by holidays. Beginning the year with the Fourth of July and its...

(The entire section is 1172 words.)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Overview

Americans during World War II found A Tree Grows in Brooklyn inspiring. Set in a pre-war Brooklyn neighborhood populated largely by...

(The entire section is 186 words.)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Extended Summary

In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith tells the story of Francie Nolan, an innocent and imaginative twelve year old. When Francie looks out of her window, she sees a Tree of Heaven growing. The tree seems to grow wherever the poor can be found, even in the Williamsburg tenement neighborhood in Brooklyn. Smith notes that “no matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky.” Like the tree, the Nolan family struggles to make ends meet during the first two decades of the twentieth century.

The Nolans may be “ground down poor,” but they try to find ways to add luxury to their lives. Each day, Katie, Francie’s mother, makes a large pot of coffee. Francie and her brother, Neeley, are allowed to add milk to it. Katie’s sisters, Sissy and Eva, disapprove when Francie throws her coffee down the sink because the family is too poor to throw anything away. However, Katie replies that Francie has the right to one cup of coffee. If she wants to throw it away like the “wasteful rich,” that is her right. Francie and her mother will sometimes pass the time fantasizing about the things they could buy with the money in their “tin can bank,” to which they add pennies every week in the hope of some day buying land for themselves.

Life at the Nolan house always picks up when Johnny comes home from his freelance work as a singing waiter. Johnny may be an alcoholic, but when they first married, he and Katie enjoyed spending time together, often staying up late into the night talking over newspaper articles that Johnny reads aloud. When Johnny and Katie first met, Johnny was dating Katie’s best friend, Hildie O’Dair. However, he left Hildie to be with Katie Rommely in 1900. It was when he found out that Katie was pregnant that Johnny began to drink. By the time Francie is twelve, her father is a struggling singing waiter, though he is a proud union man. Although Johnny gives his wages to Katie, he keeps the tips for drinking. In the meantime, Katie works as a janitress, and although she remains vivacious and pretty, her hands are ruined by lye.

The Nolan men are talented singers and dancers, but they are weak. In contrast, the Rommely women are fiery and are “made out of thin invisible steel.” Katie’s mother, Mary, is a devout Christian woman who is married to a stern, uncaring man. Katie’s sister, Sissy, is a bold woman who has been married to several men, all of whom she calls “John.” Sadly, she has given birth many times, but none of her children have lived. Katie’s other sister is Eva, and her husband works with horses. Though Eva loves him, she often teases him. These women all have a part to play in raising Francie, but she is also a Nolan, and Smith notes that Francie has only half her mother’s steel because of it. However, she also has her father’s love of beauty.

After Katie gives birth to Francie, she asks her mother for advice. Mary compares life in America to life in the old country, and she says that the difference between the two is that in America, people belong to the future rather than the past because children do not have to take on the careers of their parents. Although Katie has not done much better for herself than her parents, Mary thinks the key to helping children lies in reading and writing. She advises Katie to read one page of Shakespeare and one page of the Protestant Bible to her children each night. Fortunately, Francie loves school, especially writing, in spite of a teacher that at first refuses to call on Francie because she is poor.

Life in Brooklyn is difficult, especially with an alcoholic husband. As Katie becomes the primary provider for the Nolans, her affection, if not her loyalty, for Johnny wanes. When she has her second child, Neeley, she focuses all of her hopes on her son and Smith notes that Francie stands third in Katie’s heart. Francie likewise has an unconditional adoration for her father. Although Johnny’s antics embarrass Katie, he often has a more natural way with the kids, particularly Francie. Although Francie loves learning, her school is a difficult place to learn, so Johnny lies to the principal of a better school in order to help his daughter. Francie is forced to walk further...

(The entire section is 1735 words.)