Elisabeth (Betty) Smith was born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 15, 1896, to a family of German immigrants. Smith’s father, John Wehner, died when she was still a child, and her mother, Catherine Hummel Wehner, later married an Irish immigrant, Michael Keogh. Smith’s early life was shaped by poverty, and the immigrant experience she describes in many of her works has strong roots in her own life. She left school after the eighth grade to help support her family, working in factories, offices, and department stores. Smith loved stories and derived her greatest pleasure from reading books or acting in plays at the Williamsburg YMCA.
Americans during World War II found A Tree Grows in Brooklyn inspiring. Set in a pre-war Brooklyn neighborhood populated largely by immigrants, the book held a nostalgic appeal for its first readers, reminding many of a battle over poverty already won. Others, especially the novel’s first reviewers, savored A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as a respite from the often gloomy novels of other naturalistic writers such as Theodore Dreiser and James T. Farrell. Readers today might see the novel as a precursor of more recent young adult novels about sensitive young protagonists who face the conflicts and the delights of growing up. The book renders a vivid portrait of early 20th-century life in Brooklyn: Francie cannot afford expensive pleasures but derives joy nonetheless from visiting the junk dealer, reading in the library, shopping for ground beef and soup bones, and walking more than 40 blocks to school. Like Daniel Defoe’s classic novel Robinson Crusoe, Smith’s book offers a guide to survival skills, but in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the skills are targeted for the streets of Brooklyn rather than the wilds of a tropical island.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is set in Brooklyn’s immigrant neighborhoods. The novel opens in the summer of 1912 with eleven-year-old Francie Nolan sitting on the fire escape and looking at a Tree of Heaven in her backyard; it then moves back in time twelve years to the courtship of Francie’s parents. The novel proceeds chronologically from this point onward, tracing the lives of Francie; her brother, Neeley; and their parents, friends, and relatives. The sights, smells, and sounds of Brooklyn street life permeate the novel, influencing Francie’s moods and helping form her character during the nearly seventeen years covered in the story.
The most significant character in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Francie Nolan. A lonely child, Francie avoids close companionship with her peers. Although she is a talented writer and an excellent student, Francie drops out of school at age fourteen to earn money for her family. She later picks up credits in summer school and eventually passes a college entrance exam; she gradually opens up and forms closer relationships with people her own age through her work and her studies.
Smith uses a third-person omniscient narrator to relate her story. Thus, although Francie is the book’s central character, Smith develops other characters, even the minor ones, by means of occasional internal monologues. When, for example, ten-year-old Francie and nine-year-old Neeley venture forth to win a Christmas tree-a process that involves “catching” unsold trees that are flung at them; children who fall down forfeit their right to the trees-Smith reveals the thoughts of the “tree man”: “Oh…why don’t I just give ‘em the tree, say Merry Christmas and let ‘em go?” After deciding reluctantly that he cannot grant the Nolan children any special favors, he throws a huge tree at them, and when they hold their ground he yells “now get the hell out of here with your tree…” At this point Smith shifts to Francie’s perspective and has her realize that “he was really saying, ‘Goodbye-God bless you.’” Smith’s choice of narrative technique allows her to express an adult’s perspective on events at times and a child’s at others, yielding a rounded portrait of life in the Nolans’ Brooklyn neighborhood.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn remains popular because of its optimism, its feminism, and its philosophical ties to more recent novels for young readers. Women are the strong characters in this novel. Even Ben Blake, who helps Francie in her studies, is flawed, although he is a tower of strength in comparison to the novel’s husbands and boyfriends. Women in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn succeed not only in traditional feminine roles, but in stereotypically masculine roles as well.
1. What is the meaning of the novel’s title? How does the tree function as a symbol throughout the novel?
1. Betty Smith has said that she began writing A Tree Grows in Brooklyn after she read Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River. Read this, Wolfe’s second novel, and compare it to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn began as a play entitled Francie Nolan and a short story, “Death of a Singing Waiter.” Smith eventually transformed the works into novel form in 1943, but this was not to be the story’s final incarnation. The novel was made into a musical co-authored by George Abbot in 1951, a radio series that began in 1947, and a very successful film produced by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1945 and directed by Elia Kazan. James Dunn won an Oscar for best supporting actor in his film role as Johnny Nolan. Also included in the film’s fine cast were Peggy Ann Garner, Dorothy McGuire, and Lloyd Nolan. A 1974 film version of the novel was directed by Joseph Hardy and stars Cliff Robertson, Diane Baker, and James Olsen.