“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a novel published in 1943 by the American author Betty Smith. The book was a reflection of Smith’s childhood as the daughter of poor German immigrants growing up in Brooklyn, New York.
The book was a huge hit and became an immediate success. A film adaptation was made only two years later in 1945 and went on to win two Academy Awards. The book was also adapted into a Broadway Musical in 1951 which ran for 267 performances and a 1974 television movie adaptation.
The novel revolves around an eleven-year-old girl named Francie Nolan who lives in poverty with her quietly ambitious mother and alcoholic father in 1912 Brooklyn, New York. The family undergoes many hardships throughout the coming-of-age novel. At the end of the book, Francie is a college freshman who is leaving New York to study writing at the University of Michigan.
The first character introduced in the story is a tree. In the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn in the year 1912, a tree lives and continues to grow no matter how little the impoverished residents of the area are able to care for it. The locals have dubbed the tree ‘The Tree of Heaven’.
Next, we are introduced to eleven-year-old Francie Nolan. Francie and her younger brother, Neeley must spend the day scouring for metal scraps to sell to the junk man, a man named Carney. The children are allowed to keep half of their meager earnings but the other half must go to the family. The money is put into a tin can that the family uses as a bank. Katie, Francie and Neeley’s mother, works as a janitor. Francie looks around her neighborhood as she walks home and thinks about how much she loves it. She sees a pregnant Jewish woman and assumes that Jewish women have so many children because they hope that they might give birth to the next messiah. Francie thinks that in contrast, Irish women like her mother seem to be mostly ashamed to be pregnant.
Francie’s father appears in chapter 3 and the reader learns that Francie loves him, despite the fact that he is an irresponsible alcoholic. Francie’s father, Johnny struggles to support the family because of his drinking. All that the family has to eat is several loaves of stale bread that Francie managed to buy with her scrap metal money. However, her mother is described as being very resourceful with stale bread and the family will eat it for the next week.
Late in the night, Johnny returns home from a job as a cater-waiter for a wedding and tells them that he has made three dollars as well as a bonus of a bag of leftover food. The family eats the food around the table before Francie and Neeley go to bed.
The next chapter marks the beginning of Book Two of the story. Throughout Book Two the reader learns the story of Katie and Johnny’s courtship and early marriage. Johnny was originally the boyfriend of Katie’s best friend, Hildy O’Dair. The two were supposed to go on a double date, with Johnny bringing a date for Katie. But Katie decided that she didn’t like her date and set out to win Johnny instead.
The reader also learns a bit about Katie’s parents and the home she was raised in. Katie was one of four sisters and her father, Thomas was a gruff, challenging man who expected all of his daughters to work and never marry so that they would only give their earnings to him. Katie’s mother, Mary was a soft-spoken Catholic woman who went out of her way to protect her children from their father. One way that she did so was by making sure that they never learned their father’s only language, German. This way, the children could never speak to their father directly and they could not understand him.
Katie’s eldest sister, Sissy married when she was just fourteen and called her husband John because, although it was not his name she’d always liked the name. Sissy had four babies with John who all died. She blamed him for these deaths and eventually left him. After this, she married a second man who she also called John. Sissy had four more children with this John that was also born dead. Her third husband was also called John. The second sister, Eliza became a nun and the third sister, Evy married a man named Willie and now lives in a nicer neighborhood. She has set out to have her children become musicians and is paying for them to have lessons.
In contrast, Johnny came from two Irish immigrants named Ruthie and Mickey. He was one of four sons and the rest of his brothers were dead before age 35 from various accidents and illnesses.
Katie and Johnny spend their first year of marriage happily in love. They both work as night janitors at a school. Katie soon becomes pregnant. This worries her because she feels that Johnny needs her working with him so that he will not lose focus. As a result of this worry, Katie works right up until the day that she goes into labor. While she is in labor, Johnny gets drunk and loses his job. After the baby is born they name it Francie.
Katie’s mother convinces her to start saving up to buy land as she believes it’s the only way to escape poverty. She also instructs Katie to read to her children and make sure that they learn to read. Sissy is the first person to make a donation to the tin can bank and she also brings a copy of Gideon’s Bible and Shakespeare so that Katie can start reading to Francie. Francie is a sickly baby who is often unwell. But Katie thinks of her as a little survivor and compares her to the Tree of Heaven that survives despite everything.
Just three months after Francie is born, Katie learns that she is pregnant with another child. When Neeley is born, however, he is a very healthy baby. Katie soon comes to admit that she loves Neeley more than she loves Francie or Johnny but vows to herself that Francie will never know of this. Johnny’s drinking begins to get worse and when he goes on a three-day binge, Katie has to lock him in their bedroom overnight. The neighbors overhear him screaming and crying at her. This embarrasses Katie so much that she decides to move the family to a different area on the outskirts of Williamsburg.
The family is allowed to live in the new apartment rent-free in exchange for Katie and Johnny doing the janitorial work of the building. Johnny helps Katie with the work at first, but soon his alcoholism begins to take over and he begins to slack off. Francie and Neeley are sent to play in the street with the other children all day while their parents work. The narrator notes that seeing even very young children playing together in the street while their parents work menial jobs is the sign that there is sadness in a neighborhood.
Soon the family must move once again after Francie and Neeley find some condoms from the condom factory that she works in her handbag and mistake them for balloons, stringing them up and hanging them outside the house. Katie blames Sissy for having the condoms and decides that she will not allow her sister into her house again.
The family moves to another apartment in Williamsburg. By this point, Francie is six-years-old and wants to start school but is told that she must wait another year so that she and her brother can start school together. The kitchen of the families new apartment looks out over the Tree of Heaven, which grows out of the cement in a courtyard.
The family that moved out of the apartment before the Nolans moved in could not afford to bring their piano with them, so the instrument still stands in the living area. Francie is delighted when her father occasionally sits down to play a song for them. Katie becomes determined to learn how to play the piano herself. She trades cleaning services to a woman that lives in the building in exchange for piano lessons.
Francie starts school in the fall and realizes quickly that she is looked down on by the faculty for being among the poor students. She and the other poor students are made to sit in the back of the classroom. The poor children are only allowed to use the bathroom at recess and during recess, but the bullies prevent them from doing so. This causes the poor children to either learn to hold themselves off till they get home or regularly wet themselves.
One day, Francie does wet herself and Sissy arrive after school to pick her up. Francie is embarrassed that she has wet herself and eventually relates to Sissy that her teacher will not let her go to the bathroom.
Sissy speaks to the teacher and intimidates her so much that she begins allowing Francie to go to the bathroom when she needs to.
There is an outbreak of lice at the school and in order to prevent Francie from catching it, Katie begins scrubbing the girl’s head with a harsh soap and combing her hair with kerosene. The kerosene creates a smell that permeates throughout the entire classroom which embarrasses Francie. But she never gets lice and is relieved by this. Katie further shows her odd methods of preventing sickness by tying garlic cloves around her children’s necks to protect against a mumps epidemic.
These methods isolate Francie further from her fellow students and she does not make any friends at school. Francie stumbles across another, smaller school in a neighborhood just outside hers one day and asks her parents if she can transfer there. Johnny goes with her to the school and tells Francie that they have to get an address off of one of the nearby houses so that they can convince the school that they live in the district. Katie is not happy about the deception involved but agrees to transfer Francie by herself, as Neeley wishes to remain at their old school.
Francie has to walk 24 blocks to get to her new school every day but she finds that she doesn’t mind as she enjoys it much more than her old school. The family attends a party set up by a Democratic organization to entice women, who will soon be getting the vote, to vote for the Democratic candidate. Johnny is a Democrat and wants to show his children that anything can be achieved when you live in the Democratic United States. While they are at the party, Katie meets a man named Sergeant McShane and takes a liking to him.
Thanksgiving soon arrives and the children participate in a yearly tradition of begging for treats at the local shops. Many shopkeepers hold up the tradition and give them treats so that they will be well thought of by the children who will hopefully come back when they have more money. At school, Francie’s teacher asks the children if any of them want to take home a small pumpkin pie that has been donated. Francie says that she will donate to a poor family but when she takes it home she eats the pie herself. The next day the teacher asks about the pie and Francie lies about the family that she gave it to and makes up a story about their life. This does not convince the teacher, however.
At Christmas Francie and Neeley participate in another local tradition in which people go to a local tree lot and the owner of the lot throws the leftover trees at them. If the person is able to catch the tree and remain standing they get to keep the tree free of charge.
The owner of the lot feels bad about throwing a tree at two kids, but they insist and he does so. Francie and Neeley manage to catch the tree and drag it away from the lot back to their home. Katie sees her children with the tree and is grateful that they won it, although she is ashamed that they participated in a competition that is so demeaning. Katie hopes that her children will one day escape poverty and vows to educate them to the best of her ability. On Christmas Day, Katie celebrates Neeley’s gift to her most of all and Francie feels hurt that her mother doesn’t seem to appreciate her gift as much.
Through the next few months, Francie slowly becomes more aware of how people talk about her father’s drinking. She begins to further realize the extent of her family’s poverty and finds herself less able to distract herself from the gnawing hunger in her stomach. She dreams about becoming a playwright when she grows up so that she can write plays about real situations and real people.
One day Johnny decides to take the children out fishing on a boat. However, he feeds them a large lunch, which combined with the hot sun makes them sick. They do not catch anything and Johnny buys some fish on the way home which turns out to be rotten. The entire outing angers Katie, who tells Johnny that he is not fit to be a father.
Francie begins keeping a diary on her thirteenth birthday. A year later, she reads over the entries. Her mother sees the diary and realizes that Francie has written about her father’s drunkenness. She insists that Francie changes every time that she wrote that her father was drunk to say that he was ‘sick’.
Now that she is a teenager, Francie begins to get curious about sex. Her mother sits her down and frankly tells her everything about the subject. This strikes Francie as unusual since sex isn’t something that’s discussed in the neighborhood. Katie is determined to educate her daughter and speaks on the subject very matter-of-factly. This discussion comes up again when a rapist/murderer is on the loose in the neighborhood a little while later. The people of the neighborhood are very concerned and jumpy about the subject. Johnny borrows a gun from a friend and begins sleeping with it under his pillow.
One day the rapist hides under the stairs in the building and grabs Francie as she is walking home. Katie sees the man attacking her daughter and takes the gun from her bedroom, shooting the man in the stomach. Francie is taken to the police station and a hospital and a doctor gives her a sedative. The doctor encourages Katie and Johnny to lie to Francie when she wakes up and convince her that the incident was just a bad dream.
Aunt Sissy decides to adopt a child as she still wants a baby but does not feel that she is capable of giving birth to a healthy one. She hears about a local girl named Lucia who is pregnant and unwed. Her father has locked her in her room as punishment and is feeding her only bread and water. Sissy visits Lucia one day while the girl’s father is away and offers to adopt the baby and give it a good home. Lucia gives birth to a girl shortly after this and Sissy brings her home when she is ten days old. She successfully convinces her husband that she is the babies real mother and that he is the real father.
One day, Johnny is fired from his job as a waiter and the shame and stress cause him to have an emotional breakdown. He disappears for two days after which Sargent McShane arrives and tells Katie that Johnny was found laying unconscious in the street and that he is dying. Katie is taken to the hospital where she sits with Johnny as he dies. The next morning she tells her children that their father has died. Johnny died of pneumonia which was aided by his alcoholism. Katie insists that alcoholism is left off of the death certificate and the hospitals priest agrees with her, so pneumonia is listed as Johnny’s cause of death.
A funeral is held for Johnny and Francie is surprised that her father looks so young and peaceful in death. Hildy O’Dair attends the service and cries louder than anyone. Katie is still in shock and unable to cry. She is also pregnant and only her sister, Sissy knows. Johnny’s death shakes Francie’s faith in God. She continues to attend church with her family but confides in Neeley that she no longer believes.
Katie’s unborn baby is due in May and she is unsure how she will be able to work to feed the family for the next months while she is pregnant and delivering. Many people advise her that she should take Francie out of school and make the girl get a job but Katie refuses. She prays to her husband to ask for guidance.
A man named McGarrity, who owns the pub where Johnny most often drank, offers after school jobs to both Francie and Neeley. Francie’s writing begins to change to darker themes after her father’s passing, which upsets her teacher. Francie is unable to go back to writing about happy things, though, as she now realizes that she was writing about things that she had never experienced.
Katie gives birth to a girl named Annie Laurie in May. She sends Francie away on an errand while she in labor, in order to spare her having to be scared for her mother and Francie, is hurt by this. Francie and Neeley both graduates from junior high and, because of lack of money are unable to attend high school. They get jobs the summer after graduation. Francie starts working at a factory where she makes tissue paper flowers. When the children bring home their first paychecks, Katie is so overcome with joy that she races into her bedroom so that they will not see her cry.
Francie is soon laid off from the factory. She wants to work in an office so she lies about her age, saying she is 16 instead of 14 and gets a job as a reader in the Model Press Clipping Bureau. Francie becomes good at her job and eventually gets a raise. She hesitates to tell her mother about the raise since she thinks that her mother will want her to keep working instead of quitting to attend high school in the fall. In the end, Katie decides that one of the children needs to keep working and chooses Francie while Neeley goes back to school. This decision results in a large family fight, as Neeley does not want to go back to school and Francie does. But Katie gets her way.
The next April, World War I begins. One of the clipping bureau’s best-paying clients turns out to be a German spy and the business soon gets shut down. Francie is out of a job but sees this as a chance to try something new. Francie’s new job is not as lucrative but the family gets by. She tells her mother that she has changed her mind about ever going back to high school as she feels that she has too much real world experience now to ever sit in a classroom with children again. She does, however, want to start college. Francie takes to college very well and meets a boy named Ben Blake who she becomes close friends with.
Sissy becomes pregnant once again and elects to give birth in a hospital this time. This causes much confusion amongst her sisters as no woman in the family has ever given birth in a hospital before. She also chooses to have a Jewish doctor which confuses them more. After the baby is born, there is a brief moment where it appears to be dead and Sissy wonders if she made a horrible mistake. But the doctor orders that the baby be giving oxygen and it perks up and comes back to life.
Francie soon forgets about Ben Blake as she meets a young soldier named Lee Rhynor who is about to ship out in the war. He is engaged to a girl back home but she agrees to go out on a date with him. The two date a few times before Lee asks Francie to spend the night with him. She refuses but agrees to write him a letter in which she pours out her feelings of love for him. However, the reply, when it comes is from Lee’s fiancee whom he married only two days after he last saw Francie. Lee’s fiancee thanks Francie for entertaining her husband while he was in New York. She also apologizes for Lee pretending to be in love with her. Francie is devastated and considers writing to Ben.
Several years have passed since Johnny’s death and Sergeant McShane visits the family and asks Katie to marry him. He is not a wealthy man but he has enough to support the family and he is a good man. Francie begins dating Ben again and he gives her a ring but specifies that he is not asking her to marry him. Francie and Ben decide that after her mother’s wedding they are leaving New York to attend the University of Michigan. Ben is going to be attending law school and tells Francie that he can give her the five years that he will be in school to decide if she loves him.
In the final chapter of the book, Francie says goodbye to Brooklyn and the life that she has always known. Katie and McShane are to marry the next day and she insists on working until that day even though she no longer has to.
Francie packs her things, including her diary and her writings and prepares for a date with Ben that evening. Neeley comes in as she is packing and she realizes how much he looks like their father. Francie does not feel that she loves Ben but she is willing to try to learn to love him. As she gets ready for her date she sees a young girl sitting on the fire escape and watching her as she used to do as a child. She realizes that that part of her life is over but a new part is beginning.
Mary Francis (Francie) Nolan – the main character and protagonist of the story. At the beginning of the book, Francie is a bright, kind eleven-year-old girl. She observes the people in her neighborhood and makes witty and creative deductions about their lives. Francie is one of the few children in the neighborhood who is not the child of first-generation immigrants. However, her family is very poor and struggles to survive. In the beginning of the novel, Francie does not fully realize the extent of her family’s poverty and it is only later as she begins to grow into an adult that she must come to terms with this.
Francie is often very lonely and feels that her mother does not love her as much as she loves Neeley, her brother. She does not have any friends and does not truly connect with anyone. When she falls in love, she does it quickly and completely, putting all of her hopes into Lee who is still, by most accounts a stranger. When Lee marries his fiancee and jilts Francie, she is devastated and heartbroken.
She is more reserved in her dealings with Ben and admits that she doesn’t think she loves him, although by the end of the novel it’s clear that she is eventually going to marry him for the security his job as a lawyer will bring to her life. More than anything, Francie wants security and to live in a home where she is not struggling to make ends meet.
Katie Nolan – Francie’s mother. Katie is youngest of four daughters who were raised by a very strict, German father. Katie is a very strong woman who wants only the best for her children. However, she struggles with many missteps in raising her children that are more obvious to the reader than they are to her.
Katie feels immediately that she loves her son, Neeley, more than either her daughter or her husband. Neeley is born a strong boy and represents strength and fortitude to her. Katie vows to herself that she will never let on to Francie that she is the second favorite, but many of her actions and words do acknowledge this.
Katie knows that her husband is unable to support the family because of his alcoholism and thus takes on the role of breadwinner herself, working hard to support them. This is unusual for women of that time and was still unusual when the book was written in the 1940’s.
Katie feels from early on that providing her children with a good education is the key to them escaping the cycle of poverty and does everything in her power to keep them in school for as long as she possibly can.
Johnny Nolan – Francie’s father, a second-generation Irish immigrant with an alcohol problem. Johnny is impractical. He is a dreamer and a romantic at heart who is unequipped for the extreme poverty that he lives in. Johnny does love his family but because of his addiction is unable to support them in the way that he should. He knows that his wife can have depended upon even when he cannot so he continues to drink because he feels that he is able to.
However, Johnny also encourages his children to get good educations to escape poverty and sets Francie up in the new school with no questions asked. He also tries to give Francie extra attention and love to make up for her mother’s preference for her brother.
Johnny is handsome and very charming but has no depth beyond this. When he is fired from his job as a waiter it shatters his world and creates an emotional breakdown that eventually leads to him drinking himself to death.
Neeley Nolan – Francie’s younger brother. Neeley is born as a strong, healthy boy and for this, his mother prefers him over everyone else in the family. As Neeley grows into adulthood he begins to not only strongly resemble his father but inherits many traits from him, including his singing voice. However, Neeley does not inherit Johnny’s alcoholism as he does not like to drink. Neeley is a good son and brother and a good worker with a lot of drive.
Sissy Rommely – Katie’s oldest sister. Sissy is very generous and loving and ready to stand up for her loved ones the moment she is needed. She is desperate to be loved and desperate to be a mother. She has three husbands (all of whom she called John) and gives birth to eleven babies, only one of which survives.
Sissy redirects her need to mother onto Katie’s children and as a result, Francie lover her for the maternal affection she feels she is missing.
Sissy is very unconventional and gregarious. In the end, though she does adopt a child and shortly afterward finally gives birth to a healthy baby.
Betty Smith Biography
Elizabeth Lillian Wehner was born December 15th, 1896 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. The daughter of German immigrants, she grew up poor and left school at age 14 to start working to support her family. Betty worked many odd jobs for five years including working in a factory making tissue flowers and working at a clipping bureau where her job was to read 200 newspapers a day.
In 1915 at the age of 19, Betty attended a girl’s high school and became the editor of the school’s newspaper. In 1918, Betty’s mother remarried and Betty took her mother’s new last name, becoming Betty Keogh. In 1919, Betty eloped with George Smith and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan where she finally became Betty Smith. Betty began attending the University of Michigan and taking play-writing classes and began writing plays. One of her plays, ‘Jonica Starrs’ received the 1930 Avery Hope Award. From 1931 to 1934, Betty attended Yale University Drama School and continued to write plays, two of which were produced.
Betty and her husband legally separated in 1933 and were divorced in 1938. The next year, Betty won a $1,200 Rockefeller Fellowship and the year after that she received a $1,000 Rockefeller Dramatist Guild Award.
In the late 1930’s, Betty began writing an autobiographical novel which eventually became her most famous work, ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ (1943). That same year, Betty met Joe Jones, a newspaper columnist and the two married. ‘A Tree Grows In Brooklyn’ became such a success that Twentieth Century Fox almost immediately bought the film rights and made it into a movie. The movie is very successful, though most of the money it made went to the publisher. By the end of 1945, Betty had earned over $100,000 from sales of the book alone.
In 1948, Betty published another novel, ‘Tomorrow Will Be Better’. Three years later, in 1951, Betty separated from Joe Jones and began seeing another man, Bob Finch, whom she had dated previously. The two married in 1957. In 1958 and 1962, respectively, Betty published her last two novels, ‘Maggie-Now’ and ‘Joy in the Morning’.
By this time Betty was 66 years old. On January 17th, 1972, Betty Smith died of pneumonia in Shelton, Connecticut. She is buried in Chapel Hill, Connecticut next to her last husband.