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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was published during the Second World War (1943) and was an instant success in the US. It sold many copies, especially as it was published in an edition suitable for the pockets of uniforms. A film was made of it, directed by Elia Kazan in 1944 – his first. It’s been adapted for radio (1947), as a musical (1951), and again as a film in 1974. 

But this was Betty Smith’s one-hit wonder. Although she wrote other novels and plays none of her subsequent work achieved the popularity of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Thank you to Jennifer for recommending it to me, even if it was several years ago and she may not remember.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The success of this novel is due to the main character, Francie. She is 11, going on 12, at the start of the novel in 1912, and we follow her life until 1917, when the US became involved in the First World War. The character of Francie is very well realised, and she matures gradually throughout the events of the novel. 

Her parents are the children of immigrants. Her father is from an Irish family, and her mother’s family have come from the Austro-Hungarian empire. The immigrant experience is a constant theme, with the hardship of newly arriving in New York being mitigated eventually by the second generation. But the struggles of both families in the promised land are harsh and enduring: language (Francie’s maternal grandmother never learns English); access to education (seen by the same grandmother as the key to their successful settlement, but a struggle for Francie in the local school); cultural differences in clothes, rituals, religion, employment, attitudes to foreigners, and marriage. Francie wins through, a kind of delayed success for the American Dream.

We can infer that Francie’s experiences are drawn to a greater extent from Betty Smith’s own life. She was the daughter of parents of similar origins as Francie’s, and she too struggled to find a decent education, inveigling herself into a better school at a young age. Her father also died from alcohol-related illness and left the family struggling to survive and needing the two older children to leave school early.

Francie’s mother had three sisters who lived nearby, although the one who took orders is only briefly mentioned. The other two make lives for themselves and their children, support their sisters’ families as best they can, and provide more colour in the lively but poverty-stricken immigrant life in Brooklyn. One of them is Sissy, who loves men, marries (but does not divorce) frequently, and is illiterate but manages to provide essential support for Francie more than once. They had no access to telephones, so the family depended on the insurance money collector to take messages between them.

Francie has loving parents. Her mother is harsh, and at pains to avoid showing that her son Neeley is her favourite but determined to help Francie be a strong young woman. Her relationship with her father is touching. He has a beautiful voice and a very loving nature, but he is unable to support his family in his work as a waiter, a singing waiter, because of his alcoholism. His early death affects the family in different ways. Francie’s grief is hard, but she eventually comes to see that her father is present in her siblings, and even in herself.

The novel opens in the summer of 1912 with a typical Saturday in Francie’s life. She has chores, some of which provide a meagre contribution to the Nolan family’s finances, collecting and selling scrap, for example. She must bargain and outwit the shopkeepers when running errands for her mother. In the afternoon she visits the public library, where she can borrow books and read them for no cost. Sadly the librarian is impervious to her young customer, and when Francie asks her for a recommendation a ritual is played out.

“Could you recommend a good book for a girl?”
“How old?”
“She is eleven.”
Each week Francie made the same request and each week the librarian asked the same question. A name on a card meant nothing to her and since she never looked up into a child’s face, she never did get to know the little girl who took a book out every day and two on Saturday. […]
Francie trembled in anticipation as the woman reached under the desk. She saw the title as the book came up: If I Were King by McCarthy. Wonderful! Last week it had been Beverly of Graustark and the same the two weeks before that. She had had the McCarthy book only twice. (22)

Francie sits on the fire escape in the sun and spends the afternoon reading about the 15th century French poet, François Villon, in If I Were King. The only vegetation she can see is the umbrella tree that survives despite everything in their back yard of the house. Its persistence provides the metaphor and the title for the novel.

Much of the first half of the novel is a series of vignettes from Brooklyn in the first 15 years of the twentieth century, eg shops, customs, transport, poverty, rituals and so forth. In particular we observe Francie struggling in the overcrowded public school, where her flair for reading and writing are treated with the same indifference as the librarian treated her love of books. 

In her new school Francie, now aged 14, usually got As for her compositions, but she wrote three stories about her father, because she missed him so much, which the teacher graded as Cs. She explained that it was the subject matter that caused her to lower Francie’s grades.

“Poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit that these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.”
“What does one write about?” Unconsciously, Francie picked up the teacher’s phraseology.
“One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer, like the artist, must strive for beauty always.”
“What is beauty?” asked the child.
“I can think of no better definition than Keats’: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’”
Francie took her courage into her two hands and said, “Those stories are the truth.”
“Nonsense!” exploded Mrs Garnder. Then softening her tone, she continued. “By truth we mean things like stars always being there and the sun always rising and the true nobility of man and mother-love and love for one’s country,” she ended anticlimactically.
“I see,” said Francie. (315)

A dialogue follows between the insensitive teacher and Francie’s silent replies. One could say that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Betty Smith’s response to the original version of Mrs Garnder.

There is so much more in this detailed and endearing novel; a horse that pees on its handler; generous Sissy who frequently rescues the family; the downtrodden grandmother who encourages reading a page a day of Shakespeare and the Protestant Bible; the story of the would-be rapist; how Francie’s heart is broken; the effect of the US’s entry into the First World War on the neighbourhood and so on. There is love and persistence, heartbreak and struggle. Just what one wants from a long read.

Betty Smith

Betty Smith in 1943

Born in Brooklyn in 1896, Betty Smith lived to be 76 years old, dying in 1972. She was involved in community drama from her teenage years but later began writing fiction. She wrote four novels altogether but had success only with her first. Like her protagonist Francie, Betty Smith struggled to complete her education. 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, first published in 1943. I used the edition from Arrow Books. 483pp

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