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A Trees Grows in Brooklyn

Francie Nolan's Spot on the Web

There have been visitors to the old neighbourhood

My introduction to Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” came at about age 16. Along with millions of others, I loved the absorbing tale of Francie Nolan and her family, and could identify with the book’s setting and happenings. However, my fascination with “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was based primarily on its characterization, and on how it treated of every form of love one can know.

There are enough elements in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” for a doctoral disseration: the elements the American patriotism of the World War I era, views of the impoverished, needs for social reform, and the story’s quite accurate treatment of a child’s reaction to a parent’s alcoholism among them. My focus here is on two elements. The relationships depicted are a keen study of love in all of its forms, and Francie, our heroine from whose point of view the action unfolds, is an interesting depiction of the sensitivity, depth, and darkness of aspiring writers such as she is.

The plot of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (for those who have not yet had the treat of devouring the volume!) is of the “young girl’s coming of age” genre. Francie Nolan is a child of the slums of the early decades of this century. Her mother, Katie, works as a charlady to earn rent for the family. Papa Johnny, the “handsome, lovable fellow” superiour to everyone else on the block, delightful though he is, is hampered by chronic alcoholism from assuming responsibilities for the family with whom he shares mutual love. Her brother, Neeley, is a foil for Francie’s serious, even glum, attitude, and provides an interesting contrast to his sister’s reaction to an identical home situation.

Francie, who is given to isolation and shares her thoughts only in her writing, deals with the pains of hunger, poor living conditions, and such sordid events as nearly being the victim of a rapist. Most poignant of all is seeing her deal silently with the pain of her beloved father's death.

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” centers on everyday happenings: work, attending school, makeshift dinners with meagre rations, family gatherings which include Katie’s colourful sisters. The glimpses of others in the neighbourhood round out a portrait of slum conditions and attitudes.

Our heroine, Francie Nolan, is a portrait of vivid imagination (usually for seeing the dark side), loneliness, and sensitivity. She seems out of place in her own family, because, where the others are often described as rugged individualists and the title seems apt, Francie longs for the security of direction from an authority. Where all of the other main characters have a good deal of fun and amiability in their make up, Francie alone displays a poignant despair. A determination to survive, inherited from Katie, rescues Francie from wallowing, but there are few times, and those only in her adult years, when Francie seems to lose her fear of others.

Francie is a creature of habit, and one who seeks the security of direction. In the second chapter, we learn that Francie wishes to read all of the books in the world, and is setting about that by reading a library book each day, in alphabetical order. Her Saturday treat is to read a book “out of sequence” - but never of her own choosing, despite her eagerness to finally make it to the “Cs” in order to read a book by Marie Corelli. Francie always asks the librarian to recommend a book, and, consequently, reads the same two books again and again as her Saturday ritual.

A small detail, perhaps, but this gesture sets the stage for our heroine, who ultimately, as the story concludes when she is in her late teens, finds herself attached to Ben, a young man who directs her studies, choice of schools, and so forth. We true eccentrics would find Ben dull, but he seems well suited to Francie.

The rest of the family are colourful and social characters. Johnny is well-loved by all, Katie, we know, loves a good time and is a vivid conversationalist, and Neeley is never short of friends. Francie retreats into a world of books (whether real or still “in her head”), and her impressions of what is around her are highly fearful. In one telling scene, when Francie graduates from public school, she is astonished to find that her classmates are “nice”, and realises she could have been friendly with them for eight years!

Loving relationships

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is as full a treatment of every form of love as any book could offer. It is presented with a deceptive subtlety, but we readers find ourselves developing a warm bond with the characters Betty Smith presents so well.

Throughout the text, we can see Francie’s conflict: her love for her father, who she notices admits that he is “no good”, is intense, where her bond with her mother is cool. Katie does seem to have an attractive personality, but her bitterness at her poverty (not, as one might expect, towards Johnny himself) , particularly because she seems to accept the common idea that slum dwellers are “no good”, has hardened her. Her hopes are pinned on son Cornelius ("Neeley"), who so resembles Johnny that, from his birth, Katie believes can become the man Johnny would have been in better circumstances.

Katie and Francie seem not to understand each other, but perhaps they understand each other all too well. Francie is well aware that Katie’s love for her will never equal that for Neeley. Katie, who wants her children to be driven to “succeed” by a brutal recognition of how sordid their life is, has little appreciation for Francie’s tendency to fantasy.

Katie and Johnny, who married in their teens after a whirlwind courtship, are clearly, deeply in love. Katie never turns bitter against Johnny, nor blames him for their circumstances. Nonetheless, Katie’s burning desire to “better herself” also presents an interesting conflict. Her adoration for Johnny, it seems, kept her from finding a better life.

It is Katie’s family that gives us varied pictures of the love between spouses. Her mother, Mary Rommelly, who well may have been in an arranged marriage, had a life of “humbly submitting to her husband’s brutal love”. Though Mary possesses rare wisdom, her feelings towards the husband she hates and fears are born of respect and duty. She knows that true love exists, but believes that some sin of her own mated her with a diabolical character.

All of Mary’s daughters (save the one who entered a convent!) are in far different circumstances. Both Katie and Evy married charming, talented and weak men, whom they loved but could not give the final measure of respect. The much-married Sissy seems the most content of the lot, because she alone is a total “giver”, whose great warmth is shared with everyone.

Sissy, of course, is the “bad girl”of the family, with her string of husbands and lovers. Yet she, with her obvious, passionate love for life and all whom she meets, is the character we find ourselves loving best. One nearly gets the impression that her sin, in this group that are apparently devout but not that grounded in religious belief, is more that she disgraces her sisters than that she breaks a divine law!

All of the Nolans and Rommelys (except our introspective Francie) seem very positive and fun-loving souls amidst others whose outlook is entirely bleak. Other characters, mostly neighbours, do not exhibit warmth or caring for each other. Yet it seems that these very loving people cannot appreciate what they have, because all of the women (except Sissy)are painfully aware of the low rung they hold on the ladder of class.

It is notable that the book ends with Katie, who is now a widow for several years, marrying the upstanding Assemblyman McShane. Though the prosperous McShane, a good and dedicated man, surely will give Katie the social standing and respectability for which she has longed, the reader is inclined to wonder just how such a marriage would fare! The vibrant individualist, Johnny, who was Katie’s true love meant an exciting life, despite the poverty. This new marriage, to one predictably dull, will hardly be exciting for one used to quite another sort of man. And one tends to regret that this upscale marriage will place Katie way “above” the sisters she loves so well.

The Nolans,rugged individualists though they are, to some extent cause their own problems. Johnny, unable to adapt to responsibility, finds his solace in dreaming and the bottle. Katie, ever conscious of her desire to rise above her station, has a pride that is blind to the pain of her family, much as she does love them. Francie, who inherited her father's tendency towards dreaming without developing his charm and zest for living, retreats into a world where she expects abuse and pain.

Francie, of course, has trouble dealing with her loving her father and resenting her mother. Everyone loves Johnny - and Francie's being among them should come as no surprise. But she, hardened to the need mother taught her to let bitterness spur her to success, has to face the conflict of loving the "bad" (that is, non-productive) parent more than the long-suffering and hard-working Katie.

The love between mother and daughter is illustrated both in Katie's relationship with her own mother, Mary, and in Francie's love/struggle with Katie. Grandma Mary Rommelly apparently got a late start at motherhood. There is no large gap in the ages of her four daughters, and, since we learn that she was fifty when Katie was born, it's fair to assume that her own wisdom and resignation were well-developed well before the children came. Katie has a great respect for Mary, and is greatly influenced by Mary's stress on education as a path to improvement. However, Katie, who lacks Mary's mystic side if she does have some part of her wisdom, and whose marital responsibilities began at age 17, has a touch of the fighter in her that can be disconcerting, even while it seems to insure survival.

Of course, the reader can see what Francie would never admit. Katie's pride actually causes the children more pain than does Johnny's drinking. In one chapter, Katie is shamed by one of Johnny's drinking bouts, and, while he is hardly unique to the neighbbourhood, her pride causes her to move the family from an attractive flat to the dimmest of slum rooms. Francie's hatred for the air shaft, with its darkness reminding her fertile imagination of hell, and its carrying sounds that trouble her, and one cannot forget why they were deprived of their comfortable home.

The many incidents where Katie's pride is a stumbling block cannot be ignored. In the most dramatic scene, shortly after Johnny's death, the pregnant Katie, whose children are close to starvation, is infuriated by sister Evy's suggestion that she obtain help from the Catholic Charities. Katie storms that, if she were reduced to taking food baskets, she'd wait until the children were asleep, close the windows, and turn on every gas jet in the house.
These words seem no exagerration in Katie's mouth. The reader has seen enough of her ways to believe she would do exactly that. One cannot help but sympathize with children whose mother would rather see them starving or dead than seek assistance.

Of course, Betty Smith was writing a book that was overloaded with references to how wonderful American ways are, with a strong undercurrent of the idea that having been born there made one superiour to the rest of the world. Francie is delighted, when she begins school, to see that she, alone amongst her schoolmates, has parents who did not come from a foreign land. Given that perspective, Katie's attitude is distressingly apropos. Betty Smith was writing a tale of a poor family in a nation that abhors the poor. Only a "noble" woman like Katie, who would rather die than take anything that smacked of charity, is consistent with the American dream.

Sissy, the "bad girl" of the family, actually is the most motherly of the group. Undoubtedly, Francie, who may know little but isn't blind to her aunt's being a "disgrace", has seen enough of Sissy's love and caring firsthand to be confused. It's never stated that the match between Sissy and Johnny might have been more apropos than one with Johnny and Katie, but it does seem to beg the question.

Katie's ultimate match with the wealthy politician McShane fits the American dream dogma all too well. The uneducated Mr McShane, an immigrant from Ireland, is mightily successful, entirely by his own efforts (which seems unique in the annals of politics.) The love, if it may be called such, between the two seems to rest mainly on McShane's side. Katie is bettering herself at last - but also hoping to give McShane the happiness he'd been denied by the circumstances of his first marriage.

McShane first sets his eyes on the pretty Katie at a picnic, years before the match. Unlike Katie, his was not a love marriage. He married a girl whose husband had died, leaving her pregnant and alone, because he owed a debt of gratitude to her family. The first Mrs McShane became an invalid eventually, and the many children she bore all died.

The Rommelly girls, Katie among them, did indeed marry men that they loved - but their attraction to the weak willed creates a conflict. Evy, delightful though she is, aspires to refinement, which she will never find with the charming but self-pitying Willie. Katie loves Johnny and hates herself for doing so.

Somehow, the ending leaves one wondering how much the family will lose by "bettering themselves." Francie, headed for the University of Michigan for a degree in English, is forever removed from her background. One wonders how she will fare with people of an entirely different class and background, and whether she will compromise on her own individuality in order to meet their standards. One hates to see one sprung from the vital stock of the Nolans being controlled by a young man who has his career planned until the day he is President - and whose entire, young life is centered on that goal.

This story, so filled with love, ends on a note of compromise. But isn't success, in the material sense, the American dream? More's the pity, one might say.

Though no film version of this book has captured the theme of the original (and the Broadway musical hardly resembled the book at all!), there was one compromise in the film version that improved the ending. McShane is a policeman rather than a wealthy politician. One can envy the Nolans for going from tenement life to working class respectability, where the bridge to family, friends, and culture can remain. We are left to ponder, as the book draws to a close, if the family so endearingly presented has perhaps been a bit too successful for comfort.

Links to other sites on the Web

  • When the unicorn romped and the gryphon guarded the Cathedral
  • The Richard Ross Page - try the Celtic links
  • Rex's Space in the Universe - all right! He's my 8 year old nephew!

    "Hell, there ain't no rules around here. We're trying to accomplish something!" - Thomas Edison

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    © 1996 Francie Nolan's Neighbourhood


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