Adventures in Reading

Fiction: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1943

In a previous post I mentioned copyright information and thanks to an NPR radio show I can say one of my favorite (and nerdiest) games involves the copyright page. For example: “1. Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)–Fiction. 2. Poor families–Fiction. 3. Girls–Fiction. I. Title.” Now, guess the book. Give up? It’s Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. (I admit it was a tough one.) For years I had been reading books and entirely ignoring the copyright material unless I was citing for a paper, but once you get beyond the legal jargon there are at least a few interesting tidbits.

I finally finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn today and I do not think I can say I love it enough. As I previously mentioned (I believe), I read the book some time in high school though upon finishing the book I must assume I never actually finished the book. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Betty Smith’s (I keep wanting to say White!) classic 1947 coming of age novel about Francie Nolan. Smith’s story revolves around the Nolan family and equally provides a socio-political look at Brooklyn, New York at the turn of the century. White was born and raised in Brooklyn, which offers an intimate look at the Williamsburg neighborhood the story occurs in. While Francie is our narrator her father Johnny Nolan and her mother Katie Rommely (and her sisters) play equally important parts in the book.

The perspective that White chose allows us to experience the time period from Francie’s childhood experience as well as through her parents struggling to make ends meet. Throughout the novel, Francie’s father experiences different phases of alcoholism and as a result the family can seldom depend on him. This becomes a defining character of the Rommely (Francie included) women: you may sexually desire a man but you will still have to rely on yourself.

Now what stops me the most when thinking about this book is the term classic. Perhaps I’m simply running around in the wrong circles but when people list American classics seldom have I heard A Tree Grows in Brooklyn mentioned. But in many ways I would say this novel is just as important as The Grape’s of Wrath or The Jungle. I admit part of me wonders how much it has to do with the feminine streak of the novel. Obviously a woman wrote the book and the main character is a girl but women’s experience in this period and in Williamsburg is clearly represented. We experience birth, death, work, suffering, happiness, love, sex, violence, etc all from a woman’s perspective and interpretation. Admittedly something more tender seems to exist in this novel than the other two classics I have mentioned.

The final few pages of the book also notified me about the other novels and plays that Betty Smith had written. For whatever reason I always assumed Smith wrote the one book (a la Harper Lee) and retired. However, now I must check out Joy in the Morning and Maggie-Now.

And another review at Trish’s Reading Nook.



[…] library finally got Joy in the Morning (1963) by Betty Smith in. I mentioned this after reading her A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as I had no idea she had written any other novels. After opening Joy I immediately did a double […]

Pingback by Slavery Without Submission/Joy in the Morning « Adventures in Reading

[…] Summary in brief: Stock Irish lass moves to 1950s’ Brooklyn for life experience.  Kind of Reminds me of: Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. […]

Pingback by Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn « Robot Books

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