Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

By Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Introduction

We're going to start you off with a list of people who have read and loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

But why all the buzz? Why does this novel written the 1940s about life in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Williamsburg, Brooklyn capture so many people’s undying devotion to this day?

Maybe it is something about Francie Nolan, the protagonist. She’s pretty cool, but not in a way that makes her popular. In fact, she is pretty lonely most of the time. Instead, Francie is cool in the way that confident and driven people are cool, and she defies a lot of odds by making it out of a mean life of poverty—an impressive feat in its own right that's even more impressive since she's a young girl in a time when expectations for what girls achieve do were pretty low.

People might find it easy to relate to Francie as she goes through the difficulties of growing up. Let’s face it: growing up is filled with disappointments and uncertainties—peppered with awesome moments of excitement and thrills. This seems to be true for just about everybody, whether they grew up in 1913, 1963, or the 21st century.

It’s more than just a story about Francie and growing up, though. This book takes an honest look at the love and struggles within family. It is a hopeful tale about people who have the ability to change their lives through hard work and determination, and it is a pretty accurate depiction about was it was like to be a poor immigrant living at this time.

Although it is easy to believe that this is the story of Betty Smith’s young life, she was adamant that this isn’t her autobiography and often said that she wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn the way things should have been, not as they actually were. It really doesn't matter, though, because A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is such a solid tale that Francie Nolan (and some of the other characters, too) just might stick with you for a long time after you finish the book. We guess you could say they'll take root in your heart… get it? Good, now let's get started. 

  

What is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn About and Why Should I Care?

As you probably know by now, life is just unfair at times. There is no denying that some have it way easier than others, and Francie is one of those who has it pretty tough:

  • She’s very poor.
  • She’s a girl before the women’s movement.
  • Her father’s an alcoholic.
  • Her mother likes her brother better.
  • She is a victim of violence. 
  • We could go on and on here, but let’s save you some surprises.

There’s no doubt that this list is more than a heavy load to bear, and we'd certainly use it as a free pass to a psychologist’s office.

That's not Francie's style, though. She is a glass half-full type, so instead of focusing on all the negatives, she sees the beauty that is all around her. There is magic in Brooklyn, and she wants to show it to you.

Chances are good that you have some stuff in your life that is unfair. Reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn may help you realize that life can be magical anyway though, that there is beauty all around us when we let ourselves see it.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Resources

WEBSITES

All Things Betty Smith
Can’t get enough Betty Smith? Now you can dig into some biographical information along with descriptions of archival material located in the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A trip to the UNC library would be the place to go to really get the scoop.

Can’t Make it to Her Archives in North Carolina?
This is a dissertation written by Carol Siri Johnson all about Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and some of Smith's other works. She also discusses how the novel fits into the bigger literary picture, too.

Urban Trees vs Rural Trees
If you have one tree growing in Brooklyn and another tree growing in the country, which is going to win?

Where is Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York anyway?
It’s right about here.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
This is an Oscar award winning 1945 film. It was directed by Elia Kazan and starred Peggy Ann Garner as Francie, who many considered to be the best child actor of the time.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The 1974 made-for-TV movie is sometimes said to be a bit more loyal to the book, but it is not as critically acclaimed as the 1945 film. Also, it’s a lower budget version.

VIDEO

Here’s Johnny (Singing… Of Course)
In this clip from the 1945 film, Johnny Nolan (played by James Dunn, whose performance in this film earned him the Oscar for best supporting actor) sings “Annie Laurie.”

Francie Meets McShane
In this clip from the 1945 film, notice how the way they shoot Francie and McShane’s eyes. This helps foreshadow that they will meet again sometime. The clip also shows Mama and Francie having a tough time at school.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 60 seconds
Looking for a super condensed way to summarize the novel? Here you go.

AUDIO

I Want to Hear it, too!
Is reading the book not enough for you? Perhaps you want to hear it in the car, too? Or maybe you could read along with it. Shmoop likes that, too.

IMAGES

The Tree that Grows in Brooklyn
The view from Francie’s fire escape, perhaps?

They Can Grow Other Places, too
Here’s a great big one growing in Germany.

Betty Smith, Herself
So, what do you think? Does she look like a grown up Francie to you?

Original Book Cover Art
This is the cover of the first edition of the novel.

Movie Image
This is the cover on the 1945 film

Francie and Johnny
This pic pretty much sums up their relationship

Francie, Neeley, and Brooklyn
Here’s a look at what they could see from the rooftop.