A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Summary
by Betty Smith

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 drifts off to sleep.

Johnny Nolan and Katie Rommely meet when he is nineteen and she is seventeen, and they are married four months later. In a year’s time, Francie is born. Johnny, unable to bear the sight of Katie in labor, gets drunk, and when the water pipes burst at the school in which he is janitor, he is discharged. Neeley is born soon after Francie’s first birthday. By that time, Johnny is drinking so heavily that Katie knows she can no longer rely on him for the family’s support. In return for free rent, the Nolans move to a house in which Katie can be janitor.

Francie is not sent to school until she is seven, and Neeley is old enough to go with her. In that way the children are able to protect each other from would-be tormentors. Seated two-at-a-desk among the other poverty-stricken children, Francie soon grows to look forward to the weekly visits of her art and music teachers. They are the sunshine of her school days.

By pretending that Francie goes to live with relatives, Johnny is able to have her transferred to another school that Francie sees on one of her walks. A long way from home, it is, nevertheless, an improvement over the old one. Most of the children are of American parentage and are not exploited by cruel teachers, as are those from immigrant families.

Francie notes time by holidays. Beginning the year with the Fourth of July and its firecrackers, she looks forward next to Halloween. Election Day, with its snake dances and bonfires, comes soon after. Then follows Thanksgiving Day, on which the children disguise themselves with costumes and masks and beg trifles from storekeepers. Soon afterward comes Christmas. The year Francie is ten and Neeley nine, they stand together on Christmas Eve while the biggest tree in the neighborhood is thrown at them. Trees unsold at that time are thrown at anyone who volunteers to stand against the impact. Bruised and scratched, Francie and her brother proudly drag their tree home.

The week before Christmas, when Francie is fourteen, Johnny staggers home drunk. Two days later, he is found, huddled in a doorway, ill with pneumonia. The next day he is dead. After the funeral, Neeley is given his father’s ring and Francie his shaving mug, his only keepsakes aside from his two waiter’s aprons. To his wife, Johnny leaves a baby, due to be born the following spring.

In March, when their funds are running low, Katie cashes the children’s insurance policies. The twenty-five dollars she receives carries them through until the end of April....

(The entire section is 3,093 words.)