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An over-looked American classic

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith was written in 1943, but the style and language gives it a contemporary feel, that brings the characters to life

Geraldine Gardner

Geraldine Gardner


01635 886684

An over-looked American classic

I was given A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a few years ago as a birthday present by a good friend and it has sat in the my ever-growing pile of ‘to reads’ ever since.

Finally, I have got around to reading it and I am very glad that I did. This slice of life story of Francie and Neely Nolan growing up in a tenement block in Brooklyn is an absolute joy. I have subsequently discovered that it was turned into a film in 1945 and won a best supporting actor Oscar for James Dunn, who played the children’s father Johnny – now also on my ‘to watch’ list.

The ne’er-do-well Johnny is a feckless charmer who gets by as a singing waiter, earning barely enough to keep himself in alcohol, never mind having a wife and two children to feed. But, they all adore him – especially Francie, through whose eyes we see most of the events, even though the book is written in the third person.

The eponymous tree grows outside their apartment and it is in its branches that Francie often sneaks away to devour the books she avidly borrows from the local lending library. Francie is mature for her age and sees far more than she lets on. But, for all that she is still growing into adolescence and has a lot to learn about love and loss.

The tree seems to be a metaphor for young Francie – it has to stay strong against the odds and she certainly faces some long odds. In one memorable passage she is confronted by a serial rapist in the hallway of their block. What happens I won’t divulge, but a lesser character would have crumpled form the subsequent events.

In fact it is true to say, that in this one hit wonder by Betty Smith – none of her other offerings had anything like the same impact – all the women are the strong characters. Smith gives the reader an insight into the grit and determination of these women with a sketchy history of Francie’s maternal forebears, all of whom passed some pearls of wisdom onto the successive generation to help with the process of bettering themselves.

And we see this happening with Francie and her brother Neeley by the end of the book. She is already earning the kind of money her mother could only have dreamed of and both children have had more education than their mother, or grandmother.

In fact, it is their maternal grandmother who advises Katie, Francie’s mother, to make sure she reads a page of Shakespeare and a page from the Bible to the children every day. Their mother has ambitions for her children and herself and she is determined to achieve them, whatever obstacles are put in her way.

One such obstacle is the husband who she adores. But, it is he who gets Francie into the school she so admires and in fact it is he, who even after death (and that is not a spoiler) frequently comes to the family’s rescue in times of extreme hardship.

Francie’s aunts are also huge influences on her and show their mettle in more ways than one. The women like the tree are strong and unbowed by circumstances.

What gives this book a modern feel are some of the small incidents, which Francie and Neeley observe during their coming of age. The detail that Betty Smith uses creates such a realistic picture of the children playing in the street, queueing for food,
listening out for their father as he comes home from one of his drunken episodes, the air shaft, the barber’s cup, chalking strangers on Halloween.

But, the book’s real strength lies in the emotional heart. Francie at the centre, with her mother Katie giving her the means to break free from their existence. Katie is a disenchanted mother who without hatred wishes her alcoholic husband dead and she even coolly plots her future once he is out of the way.

She also acknowledges her preference for her son over her daughter, because she loves him more, but is not ashamed to admit she depends on her daughter’s salary and, because Francie is aware of all this, she asks her daughter’s forgiveness.

Smith gives Katie a steely resolve, a fierce sense of reality, and as she struggles with her own character, the reader cannot help but understand and admire her. Francie in turn resents her mother’s preference for Neeley, but still earns the family crust, while at the same time going to nightschool, so that she can eventually go to university, inheriting that same determined streak.

There are also many touching moments, such as the flowers Francie receives from her dead father when she graduates from school. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a slice-of-life exposé that is both poignant and life-affirming.

Don’t miss this 20th century classic.

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