A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Analysis
by Betty Smith

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Brooklyn. Borough of New York City that in the early twentieth century was filled with immigrant and second-generation Irish, Poles, Jews, and Italians. In this story, Brooklyn comprises neighborhoods of more than one social level, though poor, working people predominate. There are shabby tenements with residents whose lives are spent in sweatshops and other low-paying jobs. There are old houses owned by artisans, craftsmen, and storekeepers, many of whom are second-and third-generation Americans. Most of the schools are overcrowded and dismal, although Francie finds one that is not. There are stores of all kinds—bakeries, groceries, pawnshops, Chinese laundries, spice shops—places where an imaginative child can experience some of the wonders of a world different from her own. The daily life of the inhabitants of this diverse district offers a panorama of the likely, the improbable, and the possible, an education for the receptive heart and mind of a curious child like Francie.

Nolan flat

Nolan flat. Four so-called railroad rooms (one leading into the next) on the third floor of a tenement in Williamsburg. The family must share a bath down the hallway with two other families. This is the third home Katie and Johnny Nolan have had in their seven-year marriage, and it includes a tree growing near the fire escape. The tree provides a leafy bower for Francie during the summer Saturdays as she sits with her books and peppermint candies, reading and watching the tenants in the nearby buildings go about their evening routines.

Aside from the tree, which is Francie’s private sanctuary, the flat also has a piano, left over from the previous tenant. Thus music lessons become an enrichment of Francie and her brother Neeley’s lives. There are other redeeming qualities to this flat on Grand Street, and the Nolans make it a good home for many years. Francie’s father accurately predicts that it will be his last home; he dies while still in his thirties and before the birth of his second daughter Laurie.

Francie’s schools

Francie’s schools. There are two elementary schools that Francie attends. The first is a dismal, ugly place built to accommodate one thousand pupils but actually crowded with three thousand. The pupils, first-and second-generation children of immigrants, are brutalized by one another and by their teachers. Corporal punishment, while against the law, is practiced freely and with impunity. Disease and head lice are rampant. Still, this is Francie’s first school, and it is here she learns to read and write. She also learns a hard fact of life: that some of the fortunate ones will be favored by teachers and become their “pets,” while some unfortunate ones will not. Francie is destined to be one of the unfortunate ones as long as she attends this school.

The second school she attends, in a different district, is vastly different from the first one in its nurturing atmosphere. The teachers are more agreeable, the number of students is small enough to allow each pupil some individuality, and the building itself has a much more welcoming ambience. Discovered by Francie on one of her Saturday walks, she asks her father to find a way for her to transfer to the school. Though it means walking forty-eight blocks each day (twelve blocks each way four times a day), Francie feels fortunate to be able to attend the school, and she thrives there.

McGarrity’s saloon

McGarrity’s saloon. Establishment in which Johnny Nolan spends time drinking and where, after his death, his son Neeley works. Looked upon by many of its patrons’ wives as a place of disrepute and dereliction, the saloon becomes for Katie Nolan and her children a deliverance when the owner McGarrity provides employment for the children and a needed source of income after Johnny’s death.


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is set in Brooklyn's immigrant neighborhoods. The novel opens in the summer of 1912 with eleven-year-old Francie Nolan sitting on the fire escape...

(The entire section is 1,970 words.)