Forgotten Book: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)

Reading When Books Went to War, about the armed forces editions during WWII, I discovered this was one of the most popular books among troops. I’d heard of it, of course, but never had read it, so I found a copy at the library.

Not really forgotten, instead this is a well-known and enduring classic story of poverty in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn. The story of Francie Nolan, her parents, and her brother Neeley begins in 1912.

Mary Frances “Francie” Nolan is the protagonist. The novel begins when Francie is 11 years old. The rest of the novel tells of Francie’s life until she goes to college at 17. Francie grows up in Brooklyn in the early twentieth century; her family is in constant poverty throughout most of the novel. Francie shares a great admiration for her father, Johnny Nolan, and wishes for an improved relationship with her mother, hardworking Katie Nolan, recognizing similar traits in her mother and herself that she believes are a barrier to true understanding. The story of Francie traces her individual desires, affections, and hostilities while growing up in an aggressive, individualistic, romantic, and ethnic family and neighborhood, though it also represents the hopes of immigrants in the early twentieth century to rise above poverty through their children, whom they hope will receive an education and take their place among “true” Americans. The book’s title, symbolizing Francie, is the “Tree of Heaven” that flourishes under the most unlikely urban circumstances.

I had no idea what to expect of this, not having read it or seen the movie, but I found it well worth reading and got very involved with the characters. It deserves to be considered a classic.

About Richard Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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14 Responses to Forgotten Book: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

  1. tracybham says:

    It still surprises me that so many service men liked this book, Rick. Another piece of evidence that it is truly a classic. You do a great job of summarizing what this book conveys, especially the experience of immigrants at that time and the family issues. I like to read about family issues and how people get through them, although at times I found this a difficult read.

  2. Steve Oerkfitz says:

    Never read the book. I have seen the movie version which I found overly sentimental. Maybe it was popular with servicemen because it was a huge bestseller and there would be a lot of copies floating around.

  3. Margot Kinberg says:

    I loved this book when I first read it many years ago. I admit I’ve not seen the film, but I did like the book’s portrayal of family life in that place and at that time.

  4. Jerry House says:

    Another classic I never read. **sigh**

  5. A friend of mine considers A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN his favorite book. I used to see copies of A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN–both the hardcover edition and paperback versions–in used bookstores and thrift stores all the time. Clearly, it was a popular book. Like Margot, have not seen the movie.

  6. Jeff Meyerson says:

    I never read the book (though I have always meant to, being set in Brooklyn), but I have seen the movie more than once (Jackie likes it). WHEN BOOKS WENT TO WAR is a terrific book and I really should look for a copy of CHICKEN EVERY SUNDAY. If only I wasn’t already swamped with other books.

  7. Brett Bakee says:

    I’ll admit it, my only exposure to A Tree Grows In Brooklyn was from the Loony Tunes where Bugs uses it to protect himself from a pack of dogs.

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