A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Betty Smith


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A PBS Great American Read Top 100 Pick

A special 75th anniversary edition of the beloved American classic about a young girl's coming-of-age at the turn of the twentieth century.

From the moment she entered the world, Francie Nolan needed to be made of stern stuff, for growing up in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn, New York demanded fortitude, precocity, and strength of spirit. Often scorned by neighbors for her family’s erratic and eccentric behavior—such as her father Johnny’s taste for alcohol and Aunt Sissy’s habit of marrying serially without the formality of divorce—no one, least of all Francie, could say that the Nolans’ life lacked drama. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the Nolans’ daily experiences are raw with honestly and tenderly threaded with family connectedness. Betty Smith has, in the pages of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, captured the joys of humble Williamsburg life—from “junk day” on Saturdays, when the children of Francie’s neighborhood traded their weekly take for pennies, to the special excitement of holidays, bringing cause for celebration and revelry. Smith has created a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as deeply resonant moments of universal experience. Here is an American classic that "cuts right to the heart of life," hails the New York Times. "If you miss A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, you will deny yourself a rich experience."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060736262
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 11/06/2018
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 368
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Lexile: 810L (what's this?)

About the Author

Betty Smith (1896–1972) was a native of Brooklyn, New York. Her novels A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Tomorrow Will Be Better, Joy in the Morning, and Maggie-Now continue to capture the hearts and imaginations of millions of readers worldwide.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn't fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.

Late in the afternoon the sun slanted down into the mossy yard belonging to Francie Nolan's house, and warmed the worn wooden fence. Looking at the shafted sun, Francie had that same fine feeling that came when she recalled the poem they recited in school.

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring
pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green,
indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld.

The one tree in Francie's yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts.

You took a walk on a Sunday afternoon and came to a nice neighborhood, very refined. You saw a small one of these trees through the iron gate leading to someone's yard and you knew that soon that section of Brooklyn would get to be a tenement district. The tree knew. It came there first. Afterwards,poor foreigners seeped in and the quiet old brownstone houses were hacked up into flats, feather beds were pushed out on the window sills to air and the Tree of Heaven flourished. That was the kind of tree it was. It liked poor people.

That was the kind of tree in Francie's yard. Its umbrellas curled over, around and under her third-floor fire-escape. An eleven-year-old girl sitting on this fire-escape could imagine that she was living in a tree. That's what Francie imagined every Saturday afternoon in summer.

Oh, what a wonderful day was Saturday in Brooklyn. Oh, how wonderful anywhere! People were paid on Saturday and it was a holiday without the rigidness of a Sunday. People had money to go out and buy things. They ate well for once, got drunk, had dates, made love and stayed up until all hours; singing, playing music, fighting and dancing because the morrow was their own free day. They could sleep late -- until late mass anyhow.

On Sunday, most people crowded into the eleven o'clock mass. Well, some people, a few, went to early six o'clock mass. They were given credit for this but they deserved none for they were the ones who had stayed out so late that it was morning when they got home. So they went to this early mass, got it over with and went home and slept all day with a free conscience.

For Francie, Saturday started with the trip to the junkie. She and her brother, Neeley, like other Brooklyn kids, collected rags, paper, metal, rubber, and other junk and hoarded it in locked cellar bins or in boxes hidden under the bed. All week Francie walked home slowly from school with her eyes in the gutter looking for tin foil from cigarette packages or chewing gum wrappers. This was melted in the lid of a jar. The junkie wouldn't take an unmelted ball of foil because too many kids put iron washers in the middle to make it weigh heavier. Sometimes Neeley found a seltzer bottle. Francie helped him break the top off and melt it down for lead. The junkie wouldn't buy a complete top because he'd get into trouble with the soda water people. A seltzer bottle top was fine. Melted, it was worth a nickel.

Francie and Neeley went down into the cellar each evening and emptied the dumbwaiter shelves of the day's accumulated trash. They owned this privilege because Francie's mother was the janitress. They looted the shelves of paper, rags and deposit bottles. Paper wasn't worth much. They got only a penny for ten pounds. Rags brought two cents a pound and iron, four. Copper was good -- ten cents a pound. Sometimes Francie came across a bonanza: the bottom of a discarded wash boiler. She got it off with a can opener, folded it, pounded it, folded it and pounded it again.

Soon after nine o'clock of a Saturday morning, kids began spraying out of all the side streets on to Manhattan Avenue, the main thoroughfare. They made their slow way up the Avenue to Scholes Street. Some carried their junk in their arms. Others had wagons made of a wooden soap box with solid wooden wheels. A few pushed loaded baby buggies.

Francie and Neeley put all their junk into a burlap bag and each grabbed an end and dragged it along the street; up Manhattan Avenue, past Maujer, Ten Eyck, Stagg to Scholes Street. Beautiful names for ugly streets. From each side street hordes of little ragamuffins emerged to swell the main tide. On the way to Carney's, they met other kids coming back empty-handed. They had sold their junk and already squandered the pennies. Now, swaggering back, they jeered at the other kids.

"Rag picker! Rag picker!"

Francie's face burned at the name. No comfort knowing that the taunters were rag pickers too. No matter that her brother would straggle back, empty-handed with his gang and taunt later comers the same way. Francie felt ashamed.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Copyright © by Betty Smith. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Reading Group Guide

Plot Summary

Through it is often categorized as a coming-of-age novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is much more than that. Its richly-plotted narrative of three generations in a poor but proud American family offers a detailed and unsentimental portrait of urban life at the beginning of the century. The story begins in 1912, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where eleven-year-old Francie Nolan and her younger brother, Neeley, are spending a blissful Saturday collecting rags, paper, metal, rubber, and other scrap to sell to the junk man for a few pennies. Half of any money they get goes into the tin can bank that is nailed to the floor in the back corner of a closet in their tenement flat. This bank, a shared resource among everyone in the family, is returned to time and again throughout the novel, and becomes a recurring symbol of the Nolan's self-reliance, struggles, and dreams.

Those dreams sustain every member of the extended Nolan family, not just the children. Their mother Katie scrubs floors and works as a janitor to provide the family with free lodging. She is the primary breadwinner because her husband Johnny, a singing waiter, is often drunk and out of work. Yet there is no dissension in the Nolan household. Katie married a charming dreamer and she accepts her fate, but she vows that things will be better for her children. Her dream is that they will go to college and that Neeley will become a doctor. Intelligent and bookish, Francie seems destined to fulfill this ambition - Neeley less so.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) her own pragmatic nature, Francie feels a stronger affinity with her ne'er-do-well father than with her self-sacrificing mother. In her young eyes, Johnny can make wishes come true, as when he finagles her a place in a better public school outside their neighborhood. When Johnny dies an alcohol-related death, leaving behind the two school-aged children and another on the way, Francie cannot quite believe that life can carry on as before. Somehow it does, although the family's small enough dreams need to be further curtailed. Through Katie's determination, Francie and Neeley are able to graduate from the eighth grade, but thoughts of high school give way to the reality of going to work. Their jobs, which take them for the first time across the bridge into Manhattan, introduce them to a broader view of life, beyond the parochial boundaries of Williamsburg. Here Francie feels the pain of her first love affair. And with determination equal to her mother's, she finds a way to complete her education. As she heads off to college at the end of the book, Francie leaves behind the old neighborhood, but carries away in her heart the beloved Brooklyn of her childhood.

Discussion Topics
  1. In a particularly revealing chapter of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie's teacher dismisses her essays about everyday life among the poor as "sordid," and, indeed, many of the novel's characters seem to harbor a sense of shame about their poverty. But they also display a remarkable self-reliance (Katie, for example, says she would kill herself and her children before accepting charity). How and why have our society's perceptions of poverty changed - for better or worse - during the last one hundred years?

  2. Some critics have argued that many of the characters in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn can be dismissed as stereotypes, exhibiting quaint characteristics or representing pat qualities of either nobility or degeneracy. Is this a fair criticism? Which characters are the most convincing? The least?

  3. Francie observes more than once that women seem to hate other women ("they stuck together for only one thing: to trample on some other woman"), while men, even if they hate each other, stick together against the world. Is this an accurate appraisal of the way things are in the novel?

  4. The women in the Nolan/Rommely clan exhibit most of the strength and, whenever humanly possible, control the family's destiny. In what ways does Francie continue this legacy?

  5. What might Francie's obsession with order - from systematically reading the books in the library from A through Z, to trying every flavor ice cream soda - in turn say about her circumstances and her dreams?

  6. Although it is written in the third person, there can be little argument that the narrative is largely from Francie's point of view. How would the book differ if it was told from Neeley's perspective?

  7. How can modern readers reconcile the frequent anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiments that characters espouse throughout the novel?

  8. Could it be argued that the main character of the book is not Francie but, in fact, Brooklyn itself?

About the Author

Betty Smith was born on December 15, 1896. The daughter of German immigrants, she grew up poor in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. After stints writing features for newspapers, reading plays for the Federal Theater Project, and acting in summer stock, Smith moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina under the auspices of the W.P.A. While there in 1943, she published A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, her first novel. Smith's other novels include Tomorrow Will be Better (1947), Maggie-Now, (1958) and Joy in the Morning (1963). She also had a long career as a dramatist, writing one-act and full-length plays for which she received both the Rockefeller Fellowship and the Dramatist Guild Fellowship. She died in 1972.

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 943 reviews.
jmchshannon More than 1 year ago
Francie and all of the Nolans are amazing characters. Each and every one of us today could stand to learn a few lessons from them on what it means to live and survive. Francie is a captivating character from the moment she is introduced. As her audience, you feel her shame, her pain, her innocence, and her joys as she struggles to maneuver her way through life in early twentieth century Brooklyn. The Nolans are not the only vibrant characters. The Rommely sisters and mother are a treat unto themselves. Each one of them are strong, resilient, and knowledgeable. Again, the lessons they teach on how to live life through the good times and especially the bad, and how to stand together as a family are still valid today. The novel is set during the early twentieth century, which means that a large majority of the backdrop is quite antiquated. The existence of horse-drawn carriages, words they use, prices of food - as a lover of history, I found these examples charming and fascinating. For me, the lessons about what life was like back then struck home more than any lecture or narrative by an elderly relative. Ms. Smith presents the background with an air of innocence that I'm not certain exists anymore. I adored this novel. To me, it was extremely calming and uplifting; as one person stated, it was food for my soul. I felt peaceful and rested every time I opened the book, as if for that brief period, my body could completely relax and let itself go. The pictures Ms. Smith paints with words are crystal clear, while the words she uses are melodious. Ms. Smith has created a wonderful example for young girls everywhere on what it means to be strong and never giving up. At so many points in the novel, any one of the Nolans or Rommely sisters could have given up and let life pass them, but they choose to continue to fight the good fight and live the best way they can. Given the economic turmoil in which we currently live, it may be time to revisit these ideas.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My mom bought this book just so we could have it and I don't think she thought I would read it until I was older. True, it took me a while and I did take breaks from it, but I read the whole thing and I loved it! It was a touching story and I think it was truly my favorite book because it was funny and sad and told a story that covered many years.
Danester More than 1 year ago
I am 44 years old and have read this book for the first time. Its a timeless classic. The issues of the day in the book are still happening today. It had me think about the human condition; prejudices, fears, love, hope, desire and family ties. I loved it and highly suggest it for reading. Its a page turner. I wish that tvs would cease to exist and that books like this could be what we Americans were exposed to. The issues that this family faced as immigrants and first generation Americans are the same issues that my family deals with, and that today's immigrants face. I think this book teaches compassion and understanding. Loved it!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I needed to read this book, A tree Grows in brooklyn for my 6th grade school.(Lab) At first i looked at it and said 'al man, do i have to read this book?. it's boring!!' But then i started reading from the first page to the last. I just couldnt believe that this book was so so so facinated. I justed loved it. You should read it. You will love A tree grows in brooklyn. Garenteed!!.
bookwalker More than 1 year ago
This books follows the life of an immigrant girl in Brooklyn during the early 1900's. I don't usually read coming-of-age books but this one really spoke to me. I read it as part of an online book club and truly felt it is best read as an adult even though I first heard about it as a teenager. This book is based on the author's life and gives heartfelt descriptions of her neighborhood, family relationships, and her struggle for an education. The events that shape her life are at various times humorous, poignant, and uplifting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book about almost 50 years ago. It was my favorite for many years. I still read it again every now and then. Don't miss reading this warm profound book. A great read for young adult to oldies like me.
LupeMonsterr More than 1 year ago
i am 15 and i had to read this book for my english class, i really enjoyed this book. it is now one of my favortites. i would definitely recommend this book to people of all ages. even though the whole novel was a bit too wordy, i would still recommend it. i think this book has valuable concepts of sacrifice,and family unity among other great concepts. This is a story in which i can relate to, this is a story about struggles and hardships.
niknik More than 1 year ago
My Grandmother grew up in the time period in which this book takes place. I was charmed by this book because the language used is the same that my beloved Grandmother uses. The story is beautifully and yet heartbreakingly written. It's about thriving in your environment despite adverse circumstances. I would recommend this book to anyone.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This wonderful book has been a favorite of mine for decades (I am 53 years old)! Though it takes place at the beginning of the last century, the characters are timeless. It's a beautiful story of growing up. Please, please take a chance on this book. You will NOT be sorry that you did.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this story. Francie grows up in Brooklyn during the early 1900s. She is lonely, plain and poor but she lives and learns each day and becomes a strong and independent woman. Surrounding Francie are a slew of colorful people and relatives that round out the story and give you a real picture of how people lived during that time. Not to be missed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of the first novels I ever read. It has stayed with me for many years as a favorite of all the books I've read. I recently purchased it on my Nook Color so I can read it again and again. An amazing story of lifes difficulties during the depression.
iemery717 More than 1 year ago
I reread this wonderful story after many years (I was a teenager then.) I loved it as a young girl and even more, or differently, now as an adult. The author has much to say about community--how it supports and destroy; poverty--how grinding it really is; love--use your head and your heart; and family--make no assumptions (Dad is an alcholic and he is not abusive and he is loving and much loved). Her women are wonderful and very real. A "highly recommend" for any age. Girls are going to love and remember it(and probably reread it 30 years later).
hotshots More than 1 year ago
I loved this book, and would highly recommend it. However, I am 81 years old so I could thouroghly relate to this history. I understand it was first written by the author as an autobiography, and she had to change it to a novel to have it printed.
animatedlisa More than 1 year ago
I love this book so much I am having a copy placed in my coffin when I am buried. I first read this book in 4th grade. I kept returning it to the library and taking it out again. I was so excited to have my own copy when my dad bought it for me not soon after all the "withdrawals/returns." I have a 6th edition copy from 1943 complete with dust jacket intact and Mylar covering it. Anyhow, let's get to the review! Francie is a little girl living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the 1900s. She has a brother Neeley and her parents work hard to keep them fed and living in an tenement apartment. I really don't know where to begin because I don't want to give anything away - I'll just say you have to read it for yourself. I can't say enough about this book - Betty Smith wrote only four books and a number of plays before passing away in the 1970s. I wish she had written more. They are all fantastic. Treat yourself and pick up "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" - if you don't care for it, I'll be really surprised. (Of course, everyone has their own opinion!) ENJOY!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book completely ruined me! I loved it so much that after finishing it I had trouble finding another book to read because my standards were set so high as a result. It is hard to read slowly but I would recommend trying so that you really get a good understanding of the story and its characters.
reviewer_giada More than 1 year ago
I read this book under the recommendation of my eighth grade teacher, and fell in love with all of its characters and the style of writing for this time period. I have found each of Betty Smith's works: Joy in the Morning, Tomorrow Will Be Better, and Maggie-Now (the former two are unfortunately out-of-print), are on par with her most well-known classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Ever since my first encounter with Smith, I have spent much of my time scouring antique shops for the original copies of the out-of-print books, as well as other novels published in the same time period and have found the same mesmerizng writing style to ring true for other classic works stemming from this time period. This book represents the most genuine coming-of-age stories ever written, with characters that will riddle your heart with both tears and laughter.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It may be the truest fiction I've ever read.
chanbubbles More than 1 year ago
This book really stirs the soul and captures the heart of so many true American families.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book when I was twelve years old and it was recommended by my teacher. I have to admit the beginning is very slow but once you get past that, there is an amazing book just waiting for you. I love how the author showed different parts of Francie's life and how she saw things. I fell in love with the parts when Francie would wait for her father and he would come home drunk and singing. This book is and will ways be my favorite book of all time.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is one of the most beautiful pieces of literature i have ever read. I highly recomend this engaging tale.
Nicholas Calefati More than 1 year ago
The story of a young girl growing up in the slums of Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn, New York during economic hardships is an amazing read as you learn about what the family has to do to make it by poverty, the loss of loved ones, and ultimatly learn how strong the will of the poor really is. This is an extrordinary clasical novel that will make you think twice about the poor.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I can't even begin to do "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" justice with my review. This book was absolutely amazing...I will be recommending it to everyone I know! I was touched by this book and truly moved by it. I don't normally cry over novels but the part where Francie and Neeley were saying goodbye totally got me. That brother-sister relationship was one of my favorites throughout the book. I'm the same age as Francie is at the end of the book and even though our situations are different I still feel connected to her. Any young girl will read this and most likely feel the exact same way. Betty Smith was a very talented writer. This book left a huge impact on me and I can honestly say that it is in my top 5 favorite books of all time. Go get a copy...NOW! :)
books4everEC More than 1 year ago
I read this book for my 9th grade English Honors class. I didn't really expect that much since I didn't really know what it was about. I wasn't that excited. But by the time I finished it, I knew that it would always be a favorite of mine. Francie reminds me so much of myself and her personality is just so appealing to me. Her mother, her father, her brother and everyone else who appears stays with you too. They are just that memorable. Her life is a simply fascinating one. I recommend it to anyone. It is a truely spectacular read.
Francie2010 More than 1 year ago
I read this book for the first time when I was in Junior High -- middle school hadn't yet been 'invented' ;) I came home with a book report assignment and a list of about 20 books to choose from. My Dad looked at the list and said "We have this book" and pulled it out of a box in the attic. I read it and I liked it. I read it again and then I wrote the report. I remember saying in my book report that reading the song lyrics was tedious. I re-read this book many times over the years. I came to realize that the song lyrics that Johnny sings really are important to the story-line. I still have the copy of the book my Dad dug out of that box, but it is fragile and tucked away. When I saw this book in my local B&N store, I decided it was time to share it with my middle-school daughter. I purchased it, but she had other summer reading to do, so I read it AGAIN. :D And it seems the publisher read the book report I wrote when I was 13 years old and took my advice. The majority of the song lyrics are GONE. And the few that are there ... like when Johnny sings of "Sweet Molly Malone" dying, don't have the impact if you haven't read about him singing all the other happier verses. Still a great story, and if you've never read an older copy, it will probably be fine. But I was somewhat disappointed.
museumprincess More than 1 year ago
This books is generally required reading, but somehow I missed it in grade school. It's well written and easy to dive into, with its linear, short story-like set up. Definitely recommended, especially for girls who may be able to relate to the frail but forceful heroine, Francie Nolan.