Wednesday, October 16, 2019

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: Betty Smith

For years, I mistakenly thought that this was children's book, and I was not interested in reading it. When I researched the book and its history recently, I realized it was much more than that, but still wasn't sure I wanted to invest the time in it. In the end, I was glad that I did.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a story of poverty in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn. The focus is on Francie Nolan, the daughter of a waiter / singer who has a problem with alcohol and his wife who cleans the building they live in to pay the rent. Francie is very close to her father, but her mother favors her younger brother Neeley. Life was very hard for their family, often not having enough food, worrying about not having enough money for the basics and having to move to cheaper apartments as the father is able to bring in less money.


Although I found this a very hard book to read, I do recommend it to anyone who has not read it. While reading When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning, I was surprised to learn of this book's huge popularity when distributed as an Armed Services Edition. I now understand why. It is a compelling read and the characters are fully fleshed out and realistic.  My focus in this post is on the parents and the two children, but the extended family and many people in the neighborhood are featured also.

Although I have stressed the negatives of the life the Nolan's led, there are uplifting moments. Francie's unquenchable thirst for reading and knowledge is inspiring, and she never gives up on getting more education. I did not enjoy reading about poverty and hunger, but the way this story was told, focusing on the love that was part of this family, reminded me that not having love in childhood could be worse than not having food.

The inequities of gender are also addressed, although at many times the women in this story were stronger than the men. Yet, there was the prevalent idea that it is important for men to get an education but not women.

I did watch the film after reading the book. It was pretty faithful to the novel and a very moving story. James Dunn won the Best Supporting Actor for his role as Johnny, Franny's father. Peggy Ann Garner as Francie, Dorothy McGuire as Katie Nolan, Joan Blondell as Katie's sister Sissy and Lloyd  Nolan as Officer McShane were also very effective in their roles.

See these reviews:



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Publisher:   Harper, 2002 (orig. pub. 1943)
Length:       493 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      Brooklyn, New York
Genre:       Fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.


14 comments:

  1. I wasn't expecting to like it as much as I did when I read it, thought it was fantastic. Heart-breaking but ultimately full of hope.

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    1. I agree, Cath, it had a good ending, happyish but not saccharine.

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  2. I would have sworn you already posted this review... huh??

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    1. I had not posted anything on this book by itself, Rick, I did a brief summary on my monthly reading list, and I may have added comments here and possibly at your blog.

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  3. Hmm, I kind of feel like I would get something from this if I read it, but I probably won't. No point deluding myself!

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    1. I have a lot of books like that, Col. Inevitably at the book sale some of the books I pick up are in that category.

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  4. Like you I was under the impression that this was a very different kind of book, but so many readers seemed to recommend it that I felt I had to give it a go, and am glad I did. Thanks for the mention.

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    1. I probably would not have read this if I had not committed to reading classics for my Classics Club list, Katrina. That has spurred me to try lots of books I would have passed on before. And that has worked well for me.

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  5. I read this one a few years ago and went into it thinking I had read it in my younger days. I had not. I read another book by the author when I was maybe a young teen, JOY IN THE MORNING. I loved that one and also thought A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN was really, really good. Glad you decided to try it!

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    1. I had wondered if I would like other books by this author, Kay. She only wrote a few, but the time and place would be interesting. I will look into that.

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  6. Golly, what a lovely account, Tracy! I read this book far too many years ago and thought it was pretty damn' good. You're halfway toward persuading me I should read it again. Grr.

    Is it really 493 pages? I don't remember it being so long.

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    1. Thanks, John. I held onto my copy so I can read it again later and I sure I will enjoy more the next time.

      Yes, really 493 pages in my hardback edition. It seemed longer to me but that was probably because I struggled through the first 3/4 of the book. When I came back to it after taking a short break, the later part of the book was much easier for me.

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  7. I remember my dad raving about this book, altho I don't believe he had a copy in the house. I remember seeing the movie with the family, probly on TV, and I think I even read the book, but it was so far back I don't remember it--other than my dad's loving it, the way he would always say the title with a sort of wistfulness in his voice. You've brought it back to me here, Tracy. And I know I must read it again. Thanks.

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    1. Yes, Matt, it seems this book has universal appeal, which surprised me. The introduction by Anna Quindlen in the edition I read says something similar.

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