A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

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Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Francie Nolan

Francie Nolan, a sensitive and intelligent Brooklyn girl, growing up in grinding poverty. Because of her high values and her strength of spirit, she is able to make the most of her environment. She acquires self-reliance and is never crippled by a sense of defeat and deprivation. As the novel ends, she is making preparations to go to college.

Neeley Nolan

Neeley Nolan, Francie’s younger brother, a sympathetic but less intelligent and less interesting figure. His importance in the story is secondary to hers.

Johnnie Nolan

Johnnie Nolan, their father, a Saturday-night singing waiter. He is charming, sensitive to his children’s needs, and an affectionate father but also is an alcoholic and a bad provider. He dies of pneumonia just after Francie’s fourteenth birthday.

Katie Rommely Nolan

Katie Rommely Nolan, Johnnie’s wife. Married early, she knew by the time Neeley was born that she could not count on Johnnie for support. She works as a janitor in their tenement. As the novel ends, her life is to be easier: She is married again, this time to a retired policeman.

Mr. McGarrity

Mr. McGarrity, at whose saloon Johnnie did most of his drinking. After Johnnie’s death, he helps out by giving the children part-time jobs.

Ben Blake

Ben Blake, Francie’s fellow student, with whose help she prepares for her college examinations.

Lee Rhynor

Lee Rhynor, a soldier who is Francie’s first real date. Believing his offer of marriage sincere, she promises to write every day. Although she is not seriously in love, she does feel wounded on receiving a letter from the girl he married during his trip home.

Officer McShane

Officer McShane, a retired policeman who has long been fond of Katie. He at last persuades her to marry him, with the full agreement of the children.

Laurie Nolan

Laurie Nolan, Katie’s youngest child, born a few months after Johnnie’s death.

Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The most significant character in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Francie Nolan. A lonely child, Francie avoids close companionship with her peers. Although she is a talented writer and an excellent student, Francie drops out of school at age fourteen to earn money for her family. She later picks up credits in summer school and eventually passes a college entrance exam; she gradually opens up and forms closer relationships with people her own age through her work and her studies.

Johnny Nolan, Francie's father, dies at age thirty-four from alcoholism. A singing waiter by trade, Johnny has a dreamy sensibility that makes him a failure in the working world but a hero in the eyes of his children. Francie's younger brother Neeley, her sidekick in early childhood, comes to bear a striking physical resemblance to their dead father as he nears manhood. Johnny's romantic vision of Francie and Neeley allows them to imagine themselves as more than they are; his tragic example encourages them to achieve more than he ever could.

Francie's mother, Katie, a cleaning woman, tries to better her family's impoverished situation. She attempts to provide an education for her children with piano lessons and nightly readings of Shakespeare and the Bible, and even tries saving money to buy a home as her mother, Mary Rommely, advises her. Johnny's death does not break Katie's spirit, and five months after he dies she gives birth to a daughter, Laurie. At the end of the novel Katie plans to wed a wealthy, older policeman, Michael McShane. The marriage promises to yield both happiness for Katie and financial security for her family.

There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn, Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky...
Smith's book is populated by admirable female characters. Katie is depicted as the stronger partner in her marriage, and Francie as a better student than her brother. Katie's two sisters, Sissy and Evy, both serve as role models of sorts for Francie. Aunt Sissy has more street smarts than either Katie or Johnny. She deals...

(The entire section is 1,087 words.)