Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1735
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 to and from school, but she does not mind, even though Katie refuses to allow Francie to pack a lunch and forces her daughter to walk the distance twice every day.
Before long, Johnny diagnoses Francie with the disease of “growing up.” Francie begins to distort the truth, and it is not until her teacher tells her to tell the truth and to write the distortions as stories that she is able to come to terms with her desire to dramatize her life. Francie begins to write a diary in which she begins to realize just how poor her family is. By the time the First World War starts, Johnny has begun to get sick and the Nolans sometimes go several nights without supper. Francie admits in her diary that she is curious about sex, and Katie takes the time to explain everything she knows to her teenage daughter. Soon after, a rapist begins to strike within Brooklyn, so Johnny obtains a gun. It turns out to be a good decision as Francie is nearly caught by the rapist in a stairwell. It is only by luck that Francie is saved when Katie witnesses the rapist attacking her daughter and shoots him.
Life goes on, though it is never easy for the Nolans, who continue to struggle to make ends meet. One night in conversation with his wife, Johnny asks Katie whether he is the father of their children and Katie brings Francie and Neeley before him. He sees himself in their faces and gestures, and is satisfied. The children return to bed and Katie whispers something to Johnny. He is shocked and gets up to leave. Pointing at their bedroom, Katie tells him not to come back. After that, Johnny does not drink, though Francie notes that he acts like he is drunk. Johnny comes and goes at all hours, and three days later the police find Johnny in a doorway. They take Johnny to the hospital and he dies of pneumonia. If life was difficult before, it is now even harder for the Nolans.
It turns out that Katie whispered to Johnny that she was pregnant. Soon after Johnny is properly buried, Katie is no longer able to work. How will the Nolans afford to eat in the meantime? It seems like the best solution would be for Francie to start working, particularly as Neeley is still too young. However, Katie remembers that education is the key to her children being better off than she is. Katie prays to Johnny to save them, and soon after McGarrity, the barman with whom Johnny spent so much of his time, arrives and hires Francie and Neeley to work part-time. The Nolans manage to make it through the pregnancy, though barely. Katie gives birth to a girl, Laurie, and Francie and Neeley graduate from grade school.
It costs too much to get the children working papers, so they lie about their age. Francie gets several jobs before finally becoming a reader for a New York newspaperman. Neeley works as a broker. That fall, Neeley does not want to return to school, but Francie does. Katie declares that Neeley will return to school because she knows that Francie’s desire to learn will help her to find a way to finish her education. By this time, Francie knows very well that she is not her mother’s favorite, but she acquiesces. Now that Francie and Neeley are old enough to work, the Nolans are finally able to afford regular suppers and Christmas presents.
However, they are certainly not part of the “wasteful rich.” By the end of the next year, America has entered the war and soon after Francie loses her job through no fault of her own. That fall, she is supposed to return to high school, but she now finds that she has been living as an adult too long to go back to high school. Although she and Katie quarrel, Francie finds an alternative and begins taking college at summer school, claiming to have been “privately educated.” Meanwhile, she works nights as a touch typist. Francie also meets Ben Blake, a young man who is determined to run for the House of Representatives some day. He helps Francie with her French course that summer, and although Francie and he seem to be falling for each other, he tells Francie that he will be too busy during the winter to keep in touch.
One night over that winter, Francie’s coworkers invite her to go out on a double date. Francie meets a Lee Rhynor, who is about to go overseas to fight in the war. She falls passionately in love with him, though she declines to spend the night with him. After he leaves, she writes Lee and soon after receives a reply from his mother, who informs her that Lee has married and that he feels sorry for leading her on. It turns out that Katie has also received a letter—from Michael McShane, the “honest cop.” He visits the following week, proposes marriage, and offers to put Neeley and Francie through college. The Nolans consent.
Ben helps Francie to get into college at the University of Michigan. He gives her a ring to symbolize an “understanding” between them that in five years they will agree to marry. After five years, he will be established enough to marry and Francie will be old enough to consent to marriage. Although Francie still pines for Lee, she knows that Ben is a good man. Before she leaves for university, she notes the ways in which Neeley has begun to take after his father. Neeley has become quite a talented musician. Reflecting on her childhood in Brooklyn, she once again notices the Tree of Life. In spite of all hardships, it and the Nolans have thrived.
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