A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a book not to be missed. When it was first published in 1943, it became an instant bestseller and is considered a classic in American literature to this day. The author has fictionalized her own growing up in Brooklyn, making the story ring true due to the life experiences so realistically portrayed in the book. The first pages of the story are interesting enough to grab and keep the readers attention. A tree that grows through cracks and survives with the least amount of nourishment is described at the beginning of the book. This use of symbolism is explained at the end of the book when the reader realizes that it is Francie, the young protagonist that is compared to that determined tree.
Life and relationships, familial and community-based, are viewed through the eyes of young Francie Nolan, growing up in working class Brooklyn, which is the setting for the story. The characterization in this book is somewhat complex for a YA novel. Francie is the daughter of an alcoholic father and a work-worn mother. Her brother, Neeley, is an important part of her life. Her fascinating aunts and their lives come into the story too, rounding out the family relationships and adding depth to the story. Neighbors and business owners are characterized in the story as well. Dr. Vardell states that "many books have episodic plots that almost seem like a collection of short stories." This book is the classic example of that. The story ranges from comical incidents (a neighbor woman paints her breast to look like a monster to scare her three-year-old into quitting nursing) to the saddening ones (an unwed mother is stoned by neighbor women and Francie has a close scrape with a rapist/murderer that results in her mother shooting and killing the assailant.) The book runs the reader through a gamut of emotions.
The author profoundly relates the depth of feeling and perception that a child experiences. Francie senses that her mother loves her brother, Neeley, more than herself and that the teachers care only about the rich children, giving them preferential treatment. She also talks about the Catholic religion, the value of education and the love of books, which eventually help her to rise above the poverty within which she is raised. On page 145, Francie has learned to read and says this: "From that time on the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again."
Much of the setting of the story is in the community of Brooklyn. As a young girl, she goes to many neighborhood shops for her mother, describing the foods and the cultural flavor of the community. On page 119 the author writes, "The neighborhood stores are an important part of a city child's life. They are his contact with the supplies that keep life going." Smith also describes other settings, such as the schools that Francie goes to, the apartments that she lives in with her family, and later, her places of employment.
Throughout the book, Francie is struggling to grow up and the reader gets to come along. It is a great read for YAs who may be experiencing some of the same emotions, difficulties, joys and changes in life that Francie is experiencing. Written over fifty years ago, it is somewhat dated, using the term gay as it was originally intended.
This theme of this book is a young girl's coming-of-age. The plot revolves around this and the two converge at the end of the book to display Francie as grown up and moving on. In the end, the reader realizes that Francie likens herself to that tree, the tree that grows in Brooklyn, surviving, indeed flourishing in the harshest and leanest of environments. As they are leaving their apartment for the last time before they move to her new stepfather's house, she expresses how sad it is that her baby sister will not have the experiences that she had growing up. This tells the reader that though her growing-up life was difficult, she loved it and brings a satisfying end to the story.
"Gosh! We did have fun, didnt we, Neeley?"
"Poor Laurie" (baby sister) said Francie pityingly.
This book is longer than the typical young adult book, but once readers get started in it and dive into Francie's life, I think that they will be hooked. This is one of those books that a reader remembers long after the cover has been closed.
Smith, Betty. 1992. A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN: 0-06-080126-3.