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.