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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

''A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'' is a classic coming of age novel written in 1943 by Betty Smith. Read on for a summary and analysis of the novel followed by a short quiz.

Synopsis

The protagonist, or main character, of the novel is Mary Francis 'Francie' Nolan. She and her family live in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, at the beginning of the 20th century. The story starts when she is 11 and ends when she is almost 17, spanning the majority of her formative years.

At the beginning of Book One, Francie is 11 and is living with her mother, Katie, father, Johnny, and younger brother, Neeley. Her father's family is from Ireland and her mother's is from Austria. The family lives in tenement housing -- small, inexpensive apartments that many immigrant families occupied in New York after immigrating through Ellis Island in the 19th and early 20th century.

Francie's parents are important characters in the novel. In Book Two, there is a flashback to when Johnny and Katie met and fell in love. Johnny is fearful and overwhelmed when Katie becomes pregnant at an early age, laying the groundwork for his character later on. Katie is much more determined and practical. The family moves to several apartments before settling in the one that they are living in when the book begins.

As an adult, Katie cleans other families' apartments. She is determined to give her children a better life and knows that education makes the difference. Every night she reads to them from the Bible and Shakespeare, even when they are very small children. She has a tin can bank where she puts their spare change, teaching the children the importance of saving and planning ahead.

Johnny, on the other hand, is an incurable alcoholic and cannot keep any job for long. He works intermittently as a singing waiter and a school custodian throughout the novel but is regularly fired for drunkenness or not showing up for work. He is affectionate, soulful, musical, and much more child-like and emotional than Katie. In spite of his many faults, Francie feels a deeper connection to her father than with her mother, who favors Neeley.

Francie is an inquisitive student who loves to read; she plans to read every book in the library. Many events of the novel center on Francie's life at school, her competitive nature, and her determination to rise above her environment and peers to become a great writer. Katie's sisters set further examples for Francie of hard-working, intelligent, and spirited women.

When Francie is a teenager, Katie gets pregnant with her third child, and Johnny falls into a depression because of his inability to support the family. He eventually dies from alcohol-induced pneumonia on Christmas day. Left penniless, Francie's and Neeley's after-school jobs support the family. Katie names the baby Annie Laurie, after one of Johnny's favorite songs.

After Francie completes grade school, her mother cannot afford to send her to high school, so she enters the workforce. Francie works at an artificial flower manufacturer, then a press clipping office, and finally as a teletype operator.

Francie later meets an academically driven young man named Ben Blake who is attending high school. With encouragement from him, she decides to skip high school altogether and spend the summer preparing to take the college entrance exam. It is implied that the two will continue their relationship as she plans to enter the University of Michigan at the end of the novel.

Meanwhile, her mother remarries a wealthy former policeman, and her brother Neeley becomes a ragtime pianist, channeling their father's spirit, leaving us with a sense that the family has finally found comfort.

Analysis

The novel portrays the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn as a settling place for immigrants coming through Ellis Island. It references Irish, Italian, and Jewish communities and describes the harsh living conditions of tenement housing. Within this context, the novel addresses the idea of the 'American dream' that was often promoted to immigrants: the idea that people can achieve whatever they want in America if they work hard enough. The novel questions the truth of this dream as it explores the many ways impoverished immigrants are continuously and systematically kept down and excluded.

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