30 in 3 Book Challenge Update: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The 30 in 3 Book Challenge is slowly coming along. I must note that an updated list will be posted soon as it’s come to the point where I have no more space to buy more books and should read the ones I already have. Anyway, I finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a 493 page 1943 novel by Betty Smith.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn takes place in early twentieth century New York, Brooklyn/Williamsburg to be exact. The novel highlights themes such as poverty, class structure, alcohol and tenacity with underlying themes such as gender and the loss of innocence.

The story follows Francie Nolan and her family – brother Neeley, father Johnny and mother Katie – in five books. Book One focuses on Francie at age 11. We learn Francie loves books and has a vast imagination, which she uses to escape the poverty her family and neighbors face. In Book One, you see the family dynamic. Katie is more reserved and logical. She is the breadwinner of the family so her mindset is solely focused on survival. Johnny is more caring but unstable due to his alcoholism. He struggles to hold a steady job, working time to time as a singing waiter. The children are caring and not very social except with the Nolans and the Rommelys (Katie’s side). They are helpful and do their best to help by selling random junk for pennies, going to school, and doing chores.

Book Two jumps back in time to 1900, before Francie and Neeley were born. Book Two focuses on Katie and Johnny’s relationship. Katie falls in love with Johnny for his singing and his looks after meeting by the factory she and her friend worked at. The two get hitched and have Francie. Johnny greatly fears having a child, which causes him to downward spiral, leading him to lose his job and start uncontrollably drinking. The same downward spiral happens with Neeley’s birth. Here, the divisions between parent preferences can be seen. Johnny is closer with Francie while Katie is closer with Neeley. You also find out about their families. The Rommelys are Austrian and the Nolans are Irish. The Rommely women – Mary (the mother), Katie, Sissy, and Evy – are strong women full of determination and stubbornness, born to do great things but never reach that level. Sissy is the promiscuous sister who loves men in uniform and has terrible luck bearing children. Evy, is the youngest sister who lives with her bum husband Willie, who fights with the horse that he uses to deliver the milk jars. Sissy is a beautiful, promiscuous woman who attracts many men. She marries several times, mostly to men in uniform, but feels cursed after 10 or so miscarriages (though that doesn’t entirely stop her from hitting it off). Evy got the short straw of marrying bum Willie, who constantly fights with his horse to deliver milk jars…okay, sort of short straw. She’s described as a great storyteller and quite independent. The Nolan men – Johnny and his brothers – are handsome lovers of music and dance, but cursed with death before reaching forty years old (spoiler alert). It’s a very dysfunctional family that grows a negative reputation. It gets to the point where they have to move three times to start anew.

Book Three catches the Nolans in their third home, which is the same home in Book One. Francie and Neeley start school at the local public school. It’s shabby, run-down, and sketchy as hell. Francie is constantly bullied by fellow students and the teachers. The division of socioeconomic class is clearly seen by how Teacher treats her students. Francie, as much as she loves academia, at a young age notices how people act when in a position of power. She sees that even if one lives in the same run-down impoverished neighborhood as her, it doesn’t stop them from pretending to play a faux riche snob. Desiring more in life, Francie stumbles upon a nicer school in a nicer neighborhood. With Johnny’s help, they fake their address and transfer Francie to the new school. It’s cleaner, more rigorous and the students are treated equally. Francie flourishes here, telling herself she is going to be a writer/playwright when she grows up. Francie also experiences danger before her 14th birthday. A wanted murderer-rapist finds Francie and attacks. Katie sees the attack and fights back, saving Francie. Shortly after, Katie is pregnant with a third child. Johnny, like before, struggles with this and falls into his uncontrollable drinking habit. He dies on Christmas Day 1916 with alcoholism-induced pneumonia. This Book ends with Francie graduating grade school and to an extent graduating to the reality of her father’s death.

Book Four finds Francie and Neeley taking their first jobs. Single mother Katie does not have enough money to send both children to high school, so she chooses Neeley, knowing Francie will find her way to get back into school. Francie works in a factory to save money for high school before taking on a higher paying job at the press clipping office. In 1917, World War I sees the United States coming onto the scene, so the press clipping office shuts down. Francie moves to working as a teletype operator. Feeling she is too old to start high school, she jumps into college, taking summer classes for credits. She meets Ben, an ambitious student with political dreams. He helps Francie study her classes and for the entrance exams that summer. Summer ends and Ben goes back to school, leaving Francie alone. She then meets Lee through a coworker, a corporal set out for France. He convinces her he is in love with her, but heads back home to marry his hometown sweetheart. Francie experiences her first heartbreak. Book Four ends with Officer McShane – a police officer turned politician and businessman – who Francie and Katie met nearly 10 years ago and appears here and there, stops by the Nolan home and proposes to Katie.

Book Five, the final book. Francie is sixteen and a half. She is packed up and ready to go to Michigan to study at the University of Michigan. Katie marries McShane and the Nolans move into their new home. Francie walks around her old neighborhood, finding herself in a little girl, Flossy, who sits on a fire escape reading a book. She says hello and goodbye to Flossy, addressing her as “Francie”.

The two things I find most interesting about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is that a) the traditional rules of “right and wrong” are bent; and b) no matter how bad the situation gets, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Everyone know there is a right and a wrong way. However, the characters use the wrong way to get the right things. Johnny fakes the home address so Francie can go to a better school that will provide her better opportunities in the future. Francie lies about her age to gain higher-paying employment. Sissy lies to her husband John about being pregnant to hide the fact agreed to take a baby the hands off a sixteen year old mother (and to an extent her own birthing curse). The rules of right and wrong are bent when you are in survival mode. Does this make them terrible people? I’m not entirely sure.

Smith romanticizes poverty and the Nolans’ lives. I kept expecting the book to take a turn for the worst, but the worst never came. This novel is not like James Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man where you fall into a cesspool and the rest of the book is a downward spiral of misery. No, nothing like that! Johnny becomes an alcoholic, but the family is still happy (to an extent). Francie is attacked in a dark hallway in her building but sees it as a terrible dream. Katie becomes a pregnant single mother but continues to push through and succeeds. Francie has no money nor support from her mother to go to high school, but skips it altogether to go to college. The tenacity of the characters is very strong. Education and determination to get out of the neighborhood is pushed down their throats from the day they arrived/were born. They didn’t let poverty define them. They let themselves define themselves. It’s a beautiful story that honestly took me by complete surprise.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)

I am excited to read the next book. I am feeling my adventurous spirit is taking hold. Time to dust off my copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls. 🙂

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