A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of Francie Nolan’s childhood growing up in the slums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the turn of the century. Along with her parents and younger brother Neeley, Francie sprouts up among the brutality, poverty, and sadness surrounding her. With the blossoming mind of a child and an observational perspective only the innocence of a young person can provide; Francie gives an account of difficult lessons learned and the memories formed with her family she’ll carry forever.
Francie’s father, Johnny Nolan, is a drunk who cannot hold down a job. He is also a kind-hearted attractive Irishman who walks in the door singing Molly Malone at night. He puts a smile on his little girl’s face. When he walks with her, he holds her hand and she feels proud to be with him. These qualities are what drew her mother Katie to him years ago, but now she is tired. Katie supports the family because she can’t count on Johnny, decent man or not.
As the child among adults, Francie has conflicting thoughts and emotions involving her parents. She knows Johnny is an alcoholic, he drains the family of money, but his love for her is certain. On the other hand, Katie doesn’t show emotion. When she does, it is in favor of Neeley, Francie’s brother. Neeley is more attractive and has Katie’s personality. Francie is sorry she favors she papa.
There are lessons people learn in childhood that they don’t necessarily understand until later in life. There are things adults know that children don’t and messages they send that don’t get received. Johnny is well aware of his special connection to Francie, and he knows he isn’t to be counted on. He tries to let Francie know this by telling her he never wanted a family. This only hurts her feelings. What he knows at the time and she doesn’t is that his father and all three of his brothers did not live past the age of thirty. He has already lived that long. In order to help her cope with his imminent death, Johnny assures Francie; Katie is a good woman-and she is.
On both sides of the Nolan-Romeley family no one has been educated past grade school. In order to assure this will not be the case with her children, Katie will get them through High School. It is a rule that Francie and Neeley read both the Bible and Shakespeare before bed each night. Katie works as a janitress to keep the family eating stale bread and drinking coffee to keep from starving.
Francie loves reading and learning. Despite all the qualities of her parents she possesses, these things make her unique. She reads one book each day, which she borrows from the library. These books become part of her escape to another place. She will read every day of her life. In school she also discovers writing. When her grade school teacher catches her in a lie, Francie must promise only to use her imagination to recreate her world for fiction. Later for her graduation, Francie’s creativity progresses. She writes about problems she is familiar with, but the teacher says these are not ‘truth.’ Her subject matter needs to change. ‘But poverty, starvation, and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose. We all admit these things exist. But one doesn’t write about them.’ Even as a child Francie knows the teacher is wrong. Just because these things are vices doesn’t mean they are not worth writing about and it certainly doesn’t make them less profound or beautiful. For the Nolan family, and for most families, vices are true beauty. If people are able to persevere through vices such as drunkenness, poverty and remain together as a family-this is love.
No one in the family is perfect, but faults are forgiven. Johnny passes away and Francie loses her best friend. She thinks she’ll be lonely, mama will always have Neeley. Then, she realizes that she has her own place in her mother’s heart. ‘She doesn’t love me as much as she loves Neeley. But she needs me more than she needs him and I guess being needed is almost as good as being loved. Maybe better.’ Accepting her loss and place in the family makes her feel alright about things. Anyway, Francie has her own plans to fulfill.
The mind of the child in the novel brings the reader back their youth. There once was a time when you too were told wise and wonderful notions that went in one ear and out the other. Your parents worked to support you, took care of you, argued or got along splendidly. You took it all in. What did they say to you that you wish to God you would have understood at the time? What happy memories do you have with your family on holiday’s or special occasions? Oh how I wish I could get back the feeling I had on Christmas morning, waking up to presents under the tree. Those are the feelings the reader can relate to in this book.
Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
For more information: Film(1945) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038190/
about the author: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betty_Smith