A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN
BY BETTY SMITH
This lovely coming of age story set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the early 20th century is our heart-rending but optimistic Missed Opportunity this month. Francie is the eldest daughter in the Nolan family, born to second generation immigrants as they try to survive and escape the life cycle of acute poverty and lack of education. Yet can each generation make a step forward?
The story is narrated by Francie, the eldest daughter who is bright and imaginative. Although her father Johnny and mother Katie are teenage parents, they are determined to carve out better futures for their two children Francie and Naurie. But Johnny, a good looking and charming performer of Irish descent loses his job and succumbs to drinking. However, he does not resort to cruel behaviour with his family, instead he becomes depressed and introvert.
There are many beautiful moments of family happiness, but as the need for money and food becomes harder, Katie is unable to keep the family afloat despite working as a cleaner all the hours she can. The arrival of another child, means she has no alternative but to let her elder children take on menial jobs to bring in the pennies.
Despite the extreme poverty and lack of food, the Nolans are proud people and Katie is particularly determined to keep her children’s education going. However when the situation becomes untenable, it is Francie, her brightest child who must forego school. Francie is a voracious reader and writer but equally very naïve about “life” for a young adult. Her journey through this difficult period is poignant, fraught and beautifully told.
'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' is symbolised by the tree in the courtyard where they live which survives against all odds, nothing destroying it – symbolising Francie's blossoming into a mature young woman. If you enjoyed Frank McCourt's 'Angela's Ashes' this would be a perfect choice for your book club.