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.)