I knew even less about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I started reading it than I had about Little Women. But it was, in a lot of a ways, a perfect answer to Little Women, right down to the moment, early on, where Francie mentions that she read and enjoyed Little Women.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (cover)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (cover)

Liberty vs. Poverty and Education in Francie Nelson’s Brooklyn

It’s a little hard to summary the plot of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, because (again like Little Women) there isn’t much of one. It’s the story of Francie growing up, and of her family. Francie’s mother is beautiful and made of steel; her father is a charismatic alcoholic who is chronically unable to provide for the family. She has a brother and a couple of aunts. She goes to school and reads books and eventually gets a job. Life is difficult but also fun. And that’s… well, pretty much it.

(Okay, not quite. As Francie grows up she realizes that her father is well meaning but rendered useless by his alcoholism, and the family struggles after his death.)

Like Little Women, it’s a book focused on growing up, and on women and their relationships. And like Little Women, it’s about a family that is poor. But where the Marches’ genteel, New England poverty served mostly to teach the girls (and their readers) moral lessons, the Nelsons’ urban poverty in Brooklyn causes them to go hungry and do without much more than a new bonnet. And while there are certainly lessons to be learned from it, they center around the importance of hard work and education, not the beauty of doing without.

Hard work and education are, in fact, major themes of the book — and of Francie’s life. As the story sprawls backward in time, we see that her grandparents immigrated with hopes of a better life, but lacking education or understanding of the culture they were dropped into, they were largely unable to achieve it for themselves. But both of Francie’s parents, first generation kids, were able to do slightly better. Neither of them attended high school but they managed to find jobs (though Johnny had trouble holding one down) and (mostly) provide for their children, and sometimes even save a bit for the future. And they were both clear on one thing for their children: Francie and Neeley would go to high school, and even college. That would open up opportunities to them that their parents never had.

Another point the book dwells on, though not as overtly, is the idea that America is the land of the free. As a little girl tagging along after her brother and his friends, Francie informs them that it’s a free country when they tell her to get lost. Her mother utters the phrase when the kids want to do something she thinks is dumb. It comes up again and again, a mild rejoinder when characters are given commands or forbidden to do what they want: “Well, it’s a free country.”

Francie discovers the free world isn't free.
Francie discovers the free world isn't free.

Yet Francie learns early on that it is not, really, that free. That’s the thing about poverty: it puts harsh limits on what people are able to do. Francie’s Aunt Sissy gives birth to nine babies through the years, believed to be stillborn — it isn’t until she’s able to afford a doctor that one survives, because they weren’t stillborn, they just needed medical care. After Johnny’s death, the family barely gets through (and only does so with the help of their neighbors), and are limited when it comes to education. They can only afford to send one of the kids on to high school. Everyone agrees that education is the way out of poverty, but poverty itself is a barrier to education.

Even within education, there are disparities. Francie sees this first hand, early on. Her school is crowded, the teachers don’t care, many students are forced to share desks (not to mention other supplies). The girls who are able to afford nicer dresses and hairbows are moved to the front, though, and given more time and attention — a privilege Francie recognizes immediately. Frustrated, she stumbles across a school in a nicer neighborhood and enlists her father’s help in faking her address so she can attend it instead. (Her mother’s skeptical reaction to the idea? “It’s a free country.”) Money gets you into a nicer neighborhood; a nicer neighborhood gets you into a better school; a better school gives you a better future. #freedom #wait #maybenot

Of course, jumping up in class (even just at school) means confronting privilege. One of my very favorite passages in the book:

“Now, I’m not a snob,” started Miss Garnder. “I do not come from a wealthy family. My father was a minister with a very small salary.”

(But it was a salary, Miss Garnder.)

“And the only help my mother had was a succession of untrained maids, mostly girls from the country.”

(I see. You were poor, Miss Garnder, poor with a maid.)

“Many times we were without a maid and my mother had to do all the housework herself.”

(And my mother, Miss Garnder, has to do all her own housework, and yes, ten times more cleaning than that.)

“I wanted to go to the state university but we couldn’t afford it. My father had to send me to a small denominational college.”

(But you admit you had no trouble going to college.)

“And believe me, you’re poor when you go to such a college. I know what hunger is, too. Time and time again my father’s salary was held up and there was no money for food. Once we had to live on tea and toast for three days.”

(So you know what it is to be hungry, too.)

“But I’d be a dull person if I wrote about nothing but being poor and hungry, wouldn’t I?” Francie didn’t answer. Wouldn’t I?” repeated Miss Garnder emphatically.

In other words, Francie is recognizing that people who have more money not only have more opportunities, but don’t even realize that they do. Wow I wish this weren’t still such a salient point, a century after the book takes place. But it is, and it’s also something that I, having grown up in a rural town and then attended a ludicrously expensive university, identify with strongly. Part of privilege is that it can be totally possible to never realize you have privilege, and interacting with people who don’t understand that feels a lot like being gaslit. It’s just… two totally different realities.

The other thing about Francie’s education was how close to home it hit me. The whole time I was reading the book, I was digging through dusty memories of old family stories, which led to some extensive googling. Because Francie reminded me so much of my own family lore — the story of my great-grandmother, Rose.

Rose Sigal Golomb (my great-grandmother)
Rose Sigal Golomb (my great-grandmother)

Rose was an immigrant, who would have been just a few years older than Francie. She was Jewish, not Catholic; she lived in the Lower East Side, not Brooklyn. But she was brilliant and, like Francie, she must have sensed that education was the key to a better future. Rose took the high school entrance exam, and got the highest score in the city — but due to financial and family circumstances, couldn’t attend.1 Like Francie, she got a job, and just like Francie, she quickly learned to touch type to bring in a larger salary. (Rose became a stenographer.) She took night classes, researched Hunter College’s entry requirements, taught herself what she’d need to know to get in, and managed to attend college while working evenings and weekends.

The parallels aren’t exact, but they were strong enough for me to sit up and take notice. And they make me pretty optimistic about Francie’s future. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a story of tenacity and hard work, and it ends fairly happily, with Katie re-married and Francie off to her freshman year of college. We don’t know what happened after that. But I do know that Rose finished college in 1918 and went on to be heavily involved in Hunter’s alumni association for years. She married a doctor, Joseph, managed his office, and was also a suffragette and a feminist. 2 Given Francie’s intelligence and interest in politics, and her realization that the country may be free but not everyone is equal, I have to assume Francie grew up much the same.

Or maybe I just want to, because the book was so darned good I want to find a bit of myself and my own history in it.

Gender, War, and YA

I joked while reading that the main theme of this book is that men are useless, but it was only kind of a joke. When I said it’s a story about tenacity, I specifically mean women’s tenacity, though. We know that Katie inherited her pragmatic backbone from her mother, as did both of Katie’s sisters, Evy and Sissy. Evy’s husband is basically a sad sack, which pretty much leaves Evy doing the work. Sissy has a string of marriage that bore her and she moves on until near the end. And as for Katie and Johnny… well, Johnny means well but any kind of responsibility freaks him out and sends him into a downward spiral of alcoholism. He’s unable to hold down a job,3 so Katie is the one who works. Everyone repeats that it’s a shame — she’s so pretty, look what being a cleaner has done to her hands — but someone has to keep a roof over their heads and food on their table. Aside from Francie’s younger brother Neeley, none of the men or boys in the book are particularly reliable.

I find it really interesting on two levels. First, because there’s a popular cultural notion that women joined the workforce during WWII, when men were overseas, but stories like this clearly belie that. Middle class women joined the workforce during WWII. Poor women, and particularly women of color, always worked, because there was no other option.

Second, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was one of a handful of books that was printed in a special armed forces edition and handed out to servicemen in WWII, and of all of those titles, it was the most popular. American soldiers sent Betty Smith thousands of fan letters — plenty thanking her for writing about their beloved Brooklyn in a way that made them remember home, but plenty of others who saw themselves and their own hometowns in her descriptions of Brooklyn. This is fascinating to me because of the pervasive, bullshit idea that men won’t consume media that’s about (or by) women, which occasionally reaches a feverpitch of thinkpieces about how YA is “failing” boys by not centering them, and calls for more “boy books” in the category. But y’all, if a book that is entirely about a teenage girl, in which men are next to useless, can be the most popular book among American GIs, that is clearly nonsense. Thousands upon thousands of men identified with teen girl Francie’s life and experiences. I don’t want to hear about boys needing their own space in YA ever again, thanks.

But — whew! — with all that said, I will now walk back my own criticism of men in the book. First off, the idea that men should provide monetarily, while culturally pervasive (and all the more so in the book’s time period) was, as noted, never accurate for a lot of people (and definitely not a standard that I believe should exist), so holding Johnny to that standard is not particularly fair. And while I frequently wanted to yell at him to get his act together because he wasn’t reliable, he was not actually useless (also, alcoholism is a disease, though the book presents it mostly as a personal failing). Johnny was the parent who did much of the family’s emotional labor (at least for Francie, anyway). Katie, while fascinating and pragmatic and deeply capable, was not the one with the emotional intelligence when it came to her children. It was Johnny who understood when and why Francie would get upset, and who would soothe her. Francie’s ability to do what has to be done may have come from her mother, but her ability to daydream and be creative was entirely thanks to Johnny.

Spot Conlon’s Territory and Other Odds and Ends

  • So like Little Women, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is based at least somewhat on the writer’s life. But where Alcott seems to have rose-tinted her story significantly, particularly when it comes to her father (Mr. March is beloved and reliable; Alcott’s father was not), Smith definitely did not. Personally, I found A Tree Grows in Brooklyn much more compelling for it — the moral lessons were incidental, and the story felt more honest.
  • Speaking of which, like Alcott’s Jo, Smith’s novel includes passages about the protagonist’s relationship with writing. Francie learned to tell stories to avoid lying (there’s a fine line there) and yet found herself dedicated to using stories to tell the truth — and how to deal with people who don’t find the truth pretty. She also swore to give it up in times of pain and had to relearn her relationship with it to get started again after her father’s death.
  • OH MAN, the book makes it clear early on that Johnny was going to die but I was not expecting all of my parental grief feelings to kick in. Shortly after he dies, Francie has a panic attack, worrying that her mother might be dead, too, and can’t stop freaking out until she runs out to find her mother. And, wellp, yeah. I definitely did that the week of my mother’s funeral, when my father was late getting home. It was honestly kind of hard to read.
  • I know I’ve mentioned how great the female characters are, but they are SO GREAT. Francie and Katie especially, of course (I adore that the actual assault that happens in the book is largely forgotten by the neighborhood, but what everyone remembers is that Katie will totally shoot a man), but also Sissy (Francie’s aunt), and Mary (Francie’s grandmother). They’re all clever and fascinating. Sissy especially gets moments to shine in her fierce defense of Francie when she’s young, and her total lack of fucks to give about what anyone thinks.
  • Katie’s relationship with Francie is so complicated and so good. They love each other but don’t get along. Katie loves Neeley more, and Francie knows it. They’re very much alike, and sometimes frustrate each other. (Plus, another moment that felt very real to me was Francie being inexplicably disappointed that her mother didn’t object to her buying lacy underwear. What’s the point if you don’t get mad, Mom!)
  • Lee Rhynor: the worst! Ben Blake: meh, he’s fine. I’m actually really glad the book didn’t end on Francie and Ben getting together, and instead ended on her thinking about it because hey, maybe he’s fine. Including first love and flirting in the book about coming of age seems appropriate, but it’s also a book that makes it clear that romance is not actually what coming of age centers around, for any gender.

Did you read along? What did you think? Let me know, and remember, it’s The Catcher in the Rye next month!

  1. Family circumstances apparently was code for deliberate sabotage by her step-mother, which kind of just makes me want someone to write a Cinderella re-telling featuring my great-grandmother. The fairy godmother would actually be the mother of the family who brought Rose over from Poland — her father had already immigrated and re-married, and Rose didn’t know him at all. When her escort family’s mother found out she was being kept out of high school, she stepped in and offered the only assistance she could: for Rose to live with her family instead. They already had a bunch of kids and figured one more wouldn’t change anything, and for all intents and purposes adopted her. I didn’t realize when I was a kid that my Aunt Anna was actually one of the daughters from that family! …….oh, and I guess that makes my great-grandfather, Joseph the doctor, Prince Charming. Yeah, I can see it.
  2. Another family anecdote: Rose’s daughter, my Great-Aunt Sis, told me that Rose was the reason she was allowed to go to college. Joseph wasn’t thrilled with the idea of her leaving home for school, and Rose told him: “You always offer to buy me expensive presents and I always say no. I have enough jewelry and I don’t wear fur. But the gift you can give me is Sissy’s education. The only present I want is for you to pay her tuition.” And so he did. (And yes, like Francie, I have an Aunt Sissy, but that’s where the resemblance between our aunts ends.)
  3. Sidenote, we don’t have enough singing waiters anymore.

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