Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1172 words.)
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Americans during World War II found A Tree Grows in Brooklyn inspiring. Set in a pre-war Brooklyn neighborhood populated largely by immigrants, the book held a nostalgic appeal for its first readers, reminding many of a battle over poverty already won. Others, especially the novel's first reviewers, savored A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as a respite from the often gloomy novels of other naturalistic writers such as Theodore Dreiser and James T. Farrell. Readers today might see the novel as a precursor of more recent young adult novels about sensitive young protagonists who face the conflicts and the delights of growing up. The book renders a vivid portrait of early twentieth-century life in Brooklyn: Francie cannot afford expensive pleasures but derives joy nonetheless from visiting the junk dealer, reading in the library, shopping for ground beef and soup bones, and walking more than forty blocks to school. Like Daniel Defoe's classic novel Robinson Crusoe, Smith's book offers a guide to survival skills, but in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the skills are targeted for the streets of Brooklyn rather than the wilds of a tropical island.
(The entire section is 186 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 1735 words.)