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.
In comparison to most present-day realistic books for young adults, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is relatively tame in its depiction of the difficulties and dangers of urban life. Perhaps the most disturbing episode occurs midway through the book when Francie is accosted by a murderer who has been terrorizing the neighborhood. The marauder exposes himself to Francie and attempts to drag her away. Katie shoots and seriously wounds the man, and although Francie seems to escape the incident with no psychological scars, her brush with sexual molestation and possibly with death may upset young readers.
Although she portrays the Nolans as a Catholic family, Smith does not make the subject of religion a focus of her novel. Smith’s intent is to portray the insularity of various ethnic groups within the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, but some readers may be offended by the attitude toward other religious faiths displayed by some members of the Nolan family. The characters do not demonstrate outright prejudice towards Jews, but their offhand references to “Jew women” and “Jewtown” suggest a divide between cultures not easily surmounted. Overall, however, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a deeply affirmative book that suggests that hard work and strong family bonds can effectively counter the hardships of poverty.