Betty Smith shared many common things with her heroine, Francie Nolan. Both of them were born to impoverished parents who lived in Brooklyn. Though there was no money in the house, they have plenty of love to go around. Betty went to university after the birth of her children. Though she did not have high school education, she was admitted to the University of Michigan. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was published in 1943 when it became a best seller. Till date, this is her best known book.
Relevance of the Title
Francie and the tree that grows close to her home have a lot in common. They don’t have the best of conditions – in the case of Francie, money is scarce so everything else is dear, food, clothes, a good school and high school. The tree has no one watering it, there is cement all around and when it is cold, everything is icy – not the best conditions for growth. But the tree thrives anyway.
Poverty and Deprivation
Betty Smith has several times said that she did not intent the novel as a sociopolitical comment on the social situation that existed in early twentieth century America. But at every turn in the book whether it is in the way situations are picturised or characters developed, poverty and its effect on human lives cannot go unnoticed. The school Francie goes to first, the way the family makes do with what they have, Johnny’s drinking problem are all connected to poverty. But never is it suggested that there was ant dearth of love in the house.
Education is thought of by Katie and her mother Mary Rommely who came from Poland as the key to a better life. Mary lost out on schooling in her native Poland but in America, her daughter Katie will have a better life than her because she has been to school. And Betty has even better prospects than her mother as her schooling has lasted longer.
Francie is the protagonist of the novel. Like her mother, she is hard working and bright. She knows that the key to a better life will be education. She epitomizes the spirit of America which rewarded hard work and perseverance. She has a dreamy side to her that she has inherited from her father. Though she loved her father more than she loved her mother, she was aware of his faults. She is keen to go to high school and get on with her education but holds her dreams in check letting her brother go ahead. She works at her job winning praise and wage raises. At one point, she is able to support her family. When the chance comes, she seeks and gains admission to the university.
Katie is of Polish origin; she comes from a family of strong women. She fallen in love with Johnny’s singing and married him. But her dreams come to naught. The arrival of the children and the inability of Johnny to be a good provider toughen her. She is determined to give them the best. She works as hard as she can and even when there is little money, saves up often missing a meal for that. She favors her son Neeley over Francie but is fiercely protective of both. Women from immigrant families were often the foundation for their families to grow and Katie epitomizes this. She admires the power of education to improve lives but has to choose her son over her daughter for high school education.
Johnny is a very talented singer who does not have the determination to improve in life. He lets poverty and alcohol defeat him. He loves his family and wants them to be happy but lacks the wherewithal to provide for them. He is marked for an early death. It is his daughter who cherishes him the most. He had used his resources to move her into a better school.
It is 1912 when the story opens and Francie is eleven and her brother Neeley, ten. Though really poor, theirs is a home that is filled with love. On a Saturday afternoon, Francie helps her mother run errands and then sits at the fire escape as the neighbors go about their work. She loves the Tree of Heaven that grows outside her house. It seems to thrive though no one cares for it. Johnny who is the head of the family is a singer waiter at a restaurant who does not make much money.
Using a series of flashbacks, the author takes us to the beginning of Katie and Johnny’s marriage. Katie was working in a factory when she meets Johnny and falls in love with him. But it is clear from the beginning that he does not have her strength of character or her determination. When the children come fast, one after the other, this lack of character turns into taking solace in alcohol. Lack of money and family situations force the Nolans to change homes often.
Francie and Neeley start school on the same day. Francie had waited for school with great anticipation but she is unhappy with the way the poor children are treated in her school. She wants to get away from the cruel and mean teachers there. She chances upon a school of her dreams to which her father helps her transfer. Francie finds it difficult to find friends there also but school is a happier place for her now. Holidays are a time when Neeley and Francie have great fun.
The flashback ends at this point and takes up the story as it began. Slowly Francie begins losing her innocence. She becomes conscious of the deprivations that poverty imposes on the Nolans. She has a run-in with a sex offender. Though her mother deals with him in the way he deserves, Francie is shaken inside. She also realizes at this point her father’s problems with alcohol. Katie is pregnant again but five months before the baby is born, Johnny dies. Francie who adored her dad is bereft. Katie struggles to make ends meet with three children to provide for. The situation at home makes Francie behave strangely at school. She writes poor compositions that disappoint her English teacher. But she remains a caring individual looking after her mother in the last days before the birth of the baby. After their eighth class graduation, Neeley and Francie begin work in summer. This eases the financial strain a bit. When high school opens, Katie decides that Neeley should go to High school while Katie should work. Katie joins summer college classes even while working.
Francie gets her first taste of romance when in 48 hours she falls in love with a soldier about to go to war. But it comes to nothing as he returns home and marries his fiancée. In summer school, Francie makes a friend in Ben Blake who plans to become a lawyer. At home there are changes. Sgt. McShane proposes to her mother. He is a good man who wants to care for the family. Francie’s dream of going to the university comes true when University of Michigan accepts her without High School graduation. While Francie takes a final walk around the block she sees that the tree of Heaven which had been cut some time ago is again thriving.
Tree of Heaven
It is a metaphor for hard work and perseverance. Though the tree is not cared for by anyone, it thrives even in the most adverse conditions. The tree also stands for the human spirit.
- The one tree in Francie’s yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts.
These lines that come in the first chapter of the novel describe the setting of the novel with emphasis on the tree that gives the story its title. Looking down from her upstairs window, Francie would see the green top spread out like an umbrella.
- “Francie is entitled to one cup each meal like the rest. If it makes her feel better to throw it way rather than to drink it, all right. I think it’s good that people like us can waste something once in a while and get the feeling of how it would be have lots of money and not have to worry about scrounging.”
The Nolans are a poor family that cannot afford to waste its resources. Yet Katie does not chastise Francie when she throws away her coffee. Aunt Sissy cannot understand why she lets Francie do it. Katie says that it is alright if Francie wastes food once in a while. It gives her a taste of life as a rich kid who does not have to scrounge through life. All through the novel there is a consciousness of class distinctions. Katie understands how her children are affected by poverty therefore occasionally they need to experience the dignity of having enough.
- The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself. This that I see now, she thought, to see no more this way. Oh, the last time how clearly you see everything; as though a magnifying light had been turned on it. And you grieve because you hadn’t held it tighter when you had it every day. What had Granma Mary Rommely said? ‘To look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.’
This observation comes when the family is getting ready to leave their house when Katie gets married to Sgt. McShane. Francie is to move to the university when a dream will come true. She walks around the neighborhood seeing ordinary things with special eyes, as though seeing everything in a distinct way. It could be the first time or the last, both would be special. There is poignancy in these lines.
- He had sung many a song about ships and going down to the sea in them with a heave ho and a heave to. He wondered why it hadn’t turned out the way it said in the songs. The children should have returned exhilarated and with a deep and abiding love for the sea and he should have returned with a fine mess of fish. Why, oh why didn’t it turn out the way it did in the song?
Johnny has trouble realizing his dreams as he doesn’t work hard enough at it. It is not enough to dream. One has to make them come true. In this way Katie is different. It was with his singing and dancing that Katie falls in love. But soon enough she realizes that he lacked substance. She steps into the shoes of a breadwinner for the family. Francie has dreams too, she also has her mother’s determination also.