Getting to the Roots of Betty Smith's Classic: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
In Betty Smith’s timeless coming-of-age novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie Nolan, an eleven-year-old girl, lives in the tenement area of Williamsburg at the turn of the twentieth century with her younger brother and parents. Despite their troubles, Francie is an imaginative and smart young girl. “People always think that happiness is a faraway thing," Francie laments. "Something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains – a cup of strong hot coffee when you're blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you're alone – just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.” See, the Nolan family lives in poverty, and what is especially pointed about being poor is that they must always think about it: Every meal is planned around what money is left, every rent payment is only a brief sigh of relief, and every childhood game is an attempt to glean an extra penny. Still, Francie’s mother, Katie, desperately wants her children to be educated as she realizes it will give them access to a better life.
Education for Francie does not come easy. Although she is a curious, bright child, her first school experience is wretched. Showing how poverty can also lead to exploitation, the teachers choose to only focus on the wealthier students, forcing the poor children to sit doubled up and in the back of the classroom. Francie is distraught and begs her parents to be sent to another, better school. The only way to gain admission is to lie about their address, feigning residence in a wealthier area to gain admittance. This educational experience is much better for Francie, but also highlights the injustice and inequality in school systems. Drive and desire persevere, however, and Francie continues to grow into a young woman, ultimately landing a job in Manhattan
On the surface, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is an account of a child maturing and experiencing the pains of adulthood. However, what sets this book apart from other similar stories is it is deeply intertwined with difficult sociopolitical issues, many of which we still deal with today. The obstacles that Francie and her family face are not gone. There are still unequal schools, exploitation of the poor, and gender barriers. Betty Smith has created such a unique narrator, in that she is so observant of the bad – but also the good. Francie loves her family, the dreamy Brooklyn neighborhoods, and the power of books. She finds solace in the small, hearty beauties of her world. “There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky.”