Written over sixty years ago, time has not diminished the capacity of this book to capture the reader's heart. This coming of age story that takes place in turn of the century Brooklyn will simply enthrall the reader with its descriptive passages and its richly developed characters. This book survives the passage of time without becoming anachronistic, because the themes upon which it touches are universal ones.
The story centers on the Nolan family. The central character is the daughter, Mary Frances Nolan. Known as "Francie" to all and sundry, she is an intelligent child growing up in poverty in the tenements of Brooklyn with her charming father, a singing waiter and an alcoholic, her hard-working and practical, no-nonsense mother, and her younger brother, who enjoys favored son status in his mother's heart. Surrounding the family are a host of characters that are richly drawn and serve to add to the ambiance of the story as it enfolds.
The events that transpire in the book are seen through Francie's eyes. Her family's struggle with poverty, her father's alcoholism, her mother's steely-eyed determination to keep her family afloat, and Francie's thirst for knowledge and desire for higher education all serve to make this child strong and thrive, where others might only despair. Such is Francie's strength of character. It is that strength that helps her to battle her self-doubts, her loneliness, and lack of friends, while growing up.
This is a beautifully rendered story, a true American classic that will keep the reader turning its pages.
I picked this book up on the recommendation of a friend, who mentioned that reading it made her feel rich in comparison to the family in the book. I was therefore a bit nervous that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn might be a depressing story. But my fears were unfounded. In reality, this book is an uplifting, inspiring story of how one family, living in a poor neighbourhood of Brooklyn in the early 1900s, manage to not only survive, but to pull themselves up to better circumstances, through hard work, perseverance, and a positive attitude. The setting, which in reality is the exact neighbourhood the author grew up in, is fully realized and filled with interesting and colourful details and happenings.
The main character in the book is a book-loving girl named Francie, who is a realistic, likeable character. In fact, all the characters in this book are realistic and likeable. I felt when I was reading it like they were real people whom I came to care about. And when the story came to an end, I felt sorry that I had to say goodbye to them. I wanted to find out what happened next to Katie, Francie, and Neely, as well as Aunt Sissy and her children.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with these characters, and I was touched by the love they showed for each other. Yes, there is some sadness in the book, and I did cry a few times. But the general tone of the book is an uplifting one. I'm glad I read this book, and I know that I will remember it for a long time.
on January 11, 2007
This is a novel to be read and enjoyed for many different reasons. As an initial matter, it paints a portrait of Brooklyn at the turn of the twentieth century. Many books contain descriptions, but this book contains something more. I could hear the chaos on the streets, including the noisy children, horses and vendors. I could smell and taste the coffee that Francie's mother left boiling on the stove at all hours of the day and night. It went beyond mere description--this novel involved all of my senses and made me truly feel what it was like to live in that time and place.
Beyond the amazing imagery is a somewhat simple story of a family in crisis. Johnny, the father, drinks too much and can't hold a job but is the light and life of the family. Katie, the mother, loves her family ferociously, but has been imbittered by the strain that Johnny and their perpetual state of poverty places upon her. The story truly belongs to Francie and Neely, the two children, who survive by staying together, inventing stories and games for each other, and finding joy in their meager surroundings.
The most noteworthy aspect of the novel, to me, was its utter anger. I have heard Steinbeck's Travels with Charley described as "an angry book". A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was much angrier. Francie's childlike but astute observations concerning how society ignores the needs and struggles of the working poor explode with anger. Francie's shining moment is when she shames the doctor who comments in front of her that all poor people are dirty, without thinking that she and her brother can understand him. Sissy's shining moment is when she shames Francie's teacher who ignores poor children to the point that she fails to release them to use the bathroom, causing them to have humiliating accidents. Even Francie's and Neely's victories contain an undercurrent of anger. They catch the leftover Christmas tree, warming the heart of the peddler who threw it. But because he is poor, he cannot openly be happy for them, and has to throw curses after them as they parade home with their prize.
This book contains magic and heartbreak, heroics and cowardice, beauty and hideousness. It describes what it was like to be a poor child in Brooklyn in 1908. Above all, it reminds us that poverty and human behavior is universal. Shamefully, children and adults are still going through what Francie and her family went through 100 years ago.
on May 16, 2011
This story of a girl who comes of age just before the Roaring Twenties of the 20th century reaches across the changes of the last 100 years to resonate just as powerfully today. As a boomer who read this book in her early 20s I loved Francie Nolan then and reading it again at age 63 I love her now. She is as tough and tenacious as the tree that grows outside her Brooklyn apartment in a poor, hard-scrabble neighbourhood. She beats the odds: poverty, an alcoholic father, sibling rivalry for her mother's affection, the heartache of first love. The vivid re-creation of that era and place captivates the reader and I believe the young women of today who rediscover this gem of a novel will get lost in Francie's world and find the enchantment I did. A book for all times and all seasons!
on February 8, 2005
When I got this book, I had a warm feeling because I knew it was a classic and because I rarely get American books. I experienced the same thing with a copy of THE BARK OF THE DOGWOOD and the great and compelling novel by Steinbeck titled OF MICE AND MEN. I think this is a good choice. A good thing about this book is that Betty Smith tells all about every member of the Rommely and Nolan families, as well as other people, even though this isn't important to the plot. She isn't realistic the way modern children's writers are, but she gives lots of little details. I love the parts about the Catholic religion. My favorite character is Mary Rommely, and I enjoy daydreaming of being cared for by her or Sissy. I like the part where she tells Katie how to raise her daughter. This could be used in real life, even today. Katie is very smart, hard-working and strong-willed. Sometimes she seems too stern, but other times she is kind and understanding. I can most identify with Francie when she argues with her teacher, Miss Gardner over her writing. Also, same as her, I keep imagining things, so I liked the part when she's told to write down stories instead of speaking lies. (Only writing takes much more effort!) I think part of what it makes this a serious novel is that sometimes little sad details are included. I don't mean the kind describing the cruel school system, but softer ones: the father Johnny being a bum; Francie and Katie knowing it would never again be all right between them. However, there are also some parts telling of good times. This is a good book to read, and after you've read it, you can browse through it again and enjoy your favorite parts separately.
on June 23, 2004
Set in the early 1900's, a tree grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is an old classic we should all revist. The reader continually finds him/herself cheering for the sterdy little girl who forms the main character of the book, Mary Frances Nolan.
The book tells of the struggle of a typical family living in that time. It shows the poverty, the happiness, the utter love for the opportunity that America provides and the pride that first and second generation immigrants felt at being in America. Though Johnny Nolan, the witty, talented, drunk father of Francie, Smith shows how, even in poverty, a typical "johnny" enjoyed his freedom and opportunity in America. Johnny's conversation with Francie about the opportunity to drive a car if you could afford it (chapters 25-6), not based on who you were, shows the real love of the American dream of getting ahead on your own merit. Each such conversation is equally compelling and satisfying on the topic presented by Smith.
Smith's portrayal of the relationships that Francie had with her mother, Katie, her aunts, Sissy and Eve, and, in particular, her brother Mealy, are so well defined and understood. Like Dickens, Smith, through these relationships and personalities, has the reader identifying smilar characters in their own life.
A reader will really enjoy this classic and I would recommend it highly.
on June 19, 2004
I was first introduced to this book by my mother at the tender age of 10. Since then, I have read it countless times, and find myself picking it up and reading sections of it from time to time. The Nolans became like family to me, and I find myself thinking about the characters--particularly Sissy and Katie--at inopportune times. These extremely well-written characters don't just get in your head, they immerse themselves in your soul, and if you read this book once you will read it 1,000 times. Betty Smith is not the best writer of the 20th century, but she writes stories like no one else and managed to create timeless characters, both in this novel and in Joy In the Morning. No one should miss reading this book at least three or four times. Trust me, if you read it it will become one of your favorites, and the characters will work their way into your heart.
Sissy is my favorite character in the novel. Her lust for life, coupled with the unusual scenarios in the book, makes her unforgettable. I love Francie, of course, and who could help but love the good-for-nothing "sweet singer of sweet songs" himself, Johnny Nolan?
This movie desperately needs to be re-made as a major Hollywood film. The 1940s version was good in its own right, but it was not entirely faithful to the novel. Think of all the charming actors who could play Johnny. Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Chris O'Donnell...the list goes on and on.
Anyway, do yourself a favor and read this book!!!!
on June 2, 2004
I've been singing the praises of the book (and movie) now for many years. It's about time Oprah and everyone else realized what an American classic this is. The story touched me long before I ever lived in Brooklyn, having moved there from the South. It's timeless and so beautifully crafted that you'd be more than a little off not to be moved by it.
I actually found the character of the mother more likeable in book than the movie. She came off as a bit too hard and cold for me in the film, but then the policeman came off better in the movie than the book. Both are great--don't get me wrong--but I always enjoy creating the characters in my mind, with the help of the author. And in this case, it wasn't hard to do.
The movie often veers dangerously close to something sappy, but is pulled back just in time by a wonderful cast. I didn't experience these problems when reading the book, possibly because I wasn't forced into the pacing of the film.
At any rate, the style of writing of this book is excellent and the characters (even the tree!) will stay with you long after you've put it down. Another reviewer was right: "They don't make 'em like this anymore."
Also recommended: McCrae's "Bark of the Dogwood "
on May 28, 2004
I am writing a review on the book, Maggie-Now, by Betty Smith. I have yet to read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, but I am excited to do so. I could not stop thinking of the Moore family characters and how real they seemed. The values and the traditions of the day were so important then, I feel sad that there is a lack of tradition and heritage in America today. It grieves me so that I really do not know much about my family history and wonder if others feel as I do. This book made me laugh, cry and wonder. It truly deserves the time and effort to read. I looked at my own children differently and dreamed their dreams through their eyes. Wondering if that spunk of my middle child was the Irish in her, or thinking of my maiden name and wondering what my English ancestors were like and how they came to America, what did they do for work, were they poor like the Moores, having to take in laundry or sweep a street? So many questions I have now, because I picked this old book out of a closet, dusted off the cover and opened my mind to the past of all of us. The characters are believable, the vivid detail of the late 1800,s and early 1900,s was depicted effortlessly, and humor and pain will engulf you. The flavor of heritage and tradition flows throughout the book and takes you back to a time you may have never lived in, but one in which you are strangely familiar. The characters felt like family. Already I was lonely and missing them when I read the last page and had to close the book.
on May 27, 2004
Shortly after reading this book, I have come to realize why A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, is considered a true literature classic. The story illustrates a beautiful picture of Brooklyn, New York during the turn of the twentieth century, and the types of lifestyles the working poor lived. The story is focused on the life of Francie and Neely Nolan, the children of a sweet but heartbreaking couple, Katie and Johnny Nolan. The mother, Katie Nolan, is brutally honest, never one to publicly express emotion or sugar-coat things for her family or friends. The father, Johnny Nolan, is a charming young man who serves as the backbone for the family, but has a terrible problem: alcoholism. Smith gives some of the most common problems of children, yet is able to elaborate on them to develop the characters and give the reader a real understanding of them. For young Francie and Neely, their lives are subject to poverty, and they soon learn how valuable every cent is. As poor children growing up in a rural neighborhood, they learn to cope with teasing of their social status and their given situation in life.
With the sudden death of Johnny, the family learns to cope with an even tougher life, and the story begins to unfold. It begins to tell of the physical and emotional changes of Francie as she grows older, and her trials and tribulations as she goes from a successful student to a vulnerable factory worker. As life goes on for this family, we begin to sympathize for it, and come to gain respect for all that they must pull together for to get through whatever life throws their way.
Not only will the story appeal to the reader, but also the writing style that Betty Smith takes on. The setting descriptions that she gives of the beautifully constructed buildings, blooming flowers, passers-bys, and the whirlwind of life that Francie is observing are amazing and cause the reader to have an early fondness for the book. Imagery also plays another part in the development of the characters and the story. You could feel the warmth of the sun beating down through the windows of the bakery Francie made multiple visits to for cheap, day old bread. You could smell the coffee that Katie had brewed the day before, and tasted the freshly cut rye bread to go along with it.
Through the experiences Smith put the characters in, and the development of the tale of this unfortunate family, the reader is able to understand that many endless themes and messages are interwoven within the story. Hope, survival, and courage are all included with these themes, and are illustrated through the way that Francie and Neely live their everyday lives. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a book recommended for any classic collection, and can be enjoyed and appreciated by people everywhere. This heartwarming story is sure to touch all hearts of those who read it, and will give them a new view on life, and how lucky they are to live in the world they do today.