Francie is 11 years old and lives in a humble apartment in a run down neighborhood with her brother and mother and father. Her father, Johnny Nolan, is quite a charmer who sings and waits tables but spends the majority of his money on alcohol. The financial support for the family falls to Katie, Francie's mother, who works as a janitor in exchange for rent.
Francie loves to learn and enjoys school, but the neighborhood school is a cruel place. Out walking one day, Francie sees a beautiful school in another neighborhood. She longs to go to that school and, ever hopeful, she shares this longing with her father. Johnny is a dreamer too and he finds a way for Francie to transfer to this more gracious school where she thrives and becomes quite the writer of stories.
Francie is encouraged to write because:
Truth and fancy were so mixed up in her mind - as they are in the mind of every lonely child - that she didn't know which was which. But teacher made these two things clear to her …. "In the future, when something comes up, you tell exactly how it happened but write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened. Tell the truth and write the story.
Francie writes lovely stories that reflect the way she wishes things to be. She is innocent.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a coming of age story though, and in this type of story we witness the painful loss of innocence. We see this in Francie's development as a writer. She begins to write "sordid" stories that reflect more truthfully her own life experiences. Francie's English teacher disapproves of this new writing and wants her to burn the "ugly" compositions. Francie refuses and, instead, burns all of the old flowery writings that have nothing to do with her life experiences. In this symbolic loss of innocence we see Francie become aware of her identity as a person and writer.
These changes, as anyone who has survived childhood knows, are painful and we grieve our lost innocence. Francie, likewise, grieves for all she has lost in the scene with the roses. This scene was so powerful I felt the pain of my own experience all over again and it left me in tears. I guess this is your warning not to read this scene in public!
Coming of age stories are meant to bring up a lot of feelings in the reader. They touch on a shared experience. They speak of longings and overwhelming feelings. A time when we learn that things CHANGE, but we don't want them to. We don't like endings because, "The last time of anything has the poignancy of death itself …. And you grieve because you hadn't held it tighter when you had it every day." These are powerful feelings that we learn to manage as adults, but in the emerging adult they create emotional chaos.
A message of hope usually goes along with the pain of a coming of age story and, I suspect, this is why those of us who like such stories keep reading them. Throughout the book Francie remains sensitive and caring and hopeful. In the end, she looks to the future without denying her past. And the Tree of Heaven in her yard, that was not gently tended, keeps on growing as a symbol of perseverance and hope.
I absolutely LOVED this book. The author writes beautifully and captures the intense feelings that come with "growing up." I truly cared about the characters and thought the author treated them very sympathetically even though they, like us, are quite less than perfect. Many social themes are woven throughout A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, though the author claimed she did not mean the book to be a social commentary. This book would make a fantastic book club read with its variety of themes. Take a look at the themes listed below for conversation ideas. I wrote SO many quotes from this book into my reading journal and look forward to revisiting the book through these quotes until time to read it again.
About the author and the book:
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was written by Betty Smith and was first published in 1943. It is largely autobiographical.
- Class and poverty
- Gender and sex
- Perseverance and hope
- Loss of innocence
- The American Dream
Who should read this book?
I recommend this book to most adults and some adolescents. Those adults who already know they do not like the emotions that go along with coming of age stories might want to skip this book. Francie asks her father about the strong and confusing feelings she is experiencing and he responds that he suspects she has a bad case of "growing up." Adolescents in the midst of "growing up" might find the book helpful as they navigate "all the feelings," but others might find it overwhelming. Anyone interested in the variety of themes listed above will most likely appreciate this book.
I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as part of a read-a-long hosted by Lesley at Words of a Reader on YouTube (BookTube). You can link over to her channel on YouTube and search for her review video when it gets posted or, check back here for a direct link. I will edit this post and add links to the responses of other readers as they are posted and I become aware of them. Let me know if you have a review.