Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Analysis

  • Tone

    Insightful, Accepting

    Let’s come up with the tone in three easy steps.

    Step 1: Determine the subject matter.

    Generally speaking, what is the book about? It is about a young girl and her family who live in Brooklyn. Okay, got it. Next.

    Step 2: What does the author think about this girl, this family, and this setting? Let’s try to answer this multiple choice style:

    • She thinks Francie’s childhood and life in Brooklyn are terribly tragic and wishes things could be different.
    • She thinks that the way Francie grew up was pretty much perfect.
    • She thinks that while there were negatives, there were also beautiful times in Brooklyn for Francie.

    Which one would you chose?

    Based on the very first sentence of the book, we can probably rule out the first option: “Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York” (1.1). This positive spirit continues through most of the work. Just conjure the image of Papa tearing off a piece of his undershirt to dress Francie’s wound and you'll see that this book can be pretty darn heartwarming.

    The narrator tells us of little luxuries like the coffee Francie can choose to dump if she wants, and fun trips to the five and dime store. Plus, there are things Francie really loves about her life, like listening to the street musicians, going to the little library, and reading on the fire escape surrounded by her favorite tree.

    Maybe the most obvious clue about the book's tone comes near the end. Even after all the tough times they go through, Francie and Neeley agree that there were some awesome times growing up, too. In fact, they even pity Annie Laurie who is going to have an easier life than they had when they were poor. “‘Gosh! We did have fun, didn’t we, Neeley?’” (54.75) Francie says, and we know for sure that neither the characters nor the author think otherwise.

    But hold on a second—Smith doesn’t think Francie's life was perfect, either, and she doesn’t sugar coat the truly terrible stuff. The airshaft in the tenements where people throw all their nastiest trash makes Francie shudder as she walks by “with her eyes shut” (15.17), the descriptions of Papa's losing battle with alcoholism are heartbreaking, and Francie suffers a long list injustices and cruelties. All of this lets us know that Betty Smith does not believe that this is an ideal setting or childhood.

    The best way to answer our question, then, is with the third option: Growing up poor in Brooklyn at the turn of the twentieth century was a mixed bag.

    Step 3: To summarize what we've sorted out so far, let's say that Betty Smith wrote a book about a young girl and her poor family who live in Brooklyn; things are hard but life isn't completely awful, and though they struggle there's also plenty of beauty. What are some adjectives we could use to describe the tone of this book based on this?

    Perhaps accepting would be a good fit?

    It seems a bit more complicated than this, though. Too many characters are seeking better lives for accepting to completely account for the novel's tone. Instead, we think there's a bit of insight thrown into the mix, too. Smith has written insightful characters, people who know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em… or, if they don't always know, the narrator seems to. There is awareness at work in this novel, along with acceptance.

  • Genre

    Historical Fiction, Family Drama, Coming of Age

    Historical Fiction

    If we use the broadest lens, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of a very specific time and place. Because Betty Smith has good instincts for including details from the time, we are easily transported back to the early 1900s in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York.

    While Francie and the other characters may be fictional, the setting is very real. Reading this novel is like taking a peek into the day-to-day life of a child growing up in Brooklyn about a century ago.

    Francie takes us through the tenement buildings, and the experience is far richer than if you just read about poverty in a textbook. We meet the shops and the shopkeepers, and hear the street musicians.

    Simply put, you could easily write an essay for you history teacher about this time and place after finishing this novel, which makes it historical fiction.

    Family Drama

    If we zoom in a bit, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn becomes a moving story about a family and, in this way, falls into the category of family drama.

    It is the story of the Nolans and all their relatives who all live close together. There’s a lot to learn about their backgrounds, their ups and downs, and their sorrows and joys. Like most families, the Nolans are not perfect; there are complex character relationships, but also strong love that sees them through the hardships.

    A good example of this is when Katie forgives her sister for the whole condom incident after Katie learns of her sister’s tenth stillborn child. Also, Papa’s brief periods of sobriety are met with happiness and hope rather than resentment and anger. We understand Francie’s conflicted feelings when she is financial supporter for the family. She puts the family’s needs over her own personal wants, and that can be tough.

    Most readers want to see this family make it through the difficult times and overcome adversities stronger than ever before.

    Coming of Age

    At the heart of the Nolan family is our Francie.

    When we first meet Francie, she is young and full of idealism. The world is shiny, sparkling, and new—everything is full of potential and beauty. For instance, she believes it is totally possible to read all of the books in the world (and that all of the books in the world are housed in her shabby little community library). The scales in the coffee and tea shop knock her out, and the Williamsburg Bridge is a wondrous thing that must lead to a similarly wondrous land.

    But soon Francie starts to grow up and, as she does, she begins recognizing the flaws in things. She is able to critically judge a play that has a cheesy ending, and she realizes that the game Mama plays with them is really just a way to take their minds off their hunger.

    Along with these disappointments, she comes face-to-face with obstacles that stand in her way. A girl with erasers shows her that some people are just mean for no real reason; a doctor and her first teacher shame her for being poor and dirty; and she learns about the dangers of being a woman when she is attacked by the sexual predator in her building. Plus, she sees how Sissy and an unwed mother are judged harshly and unfairly for their sexual behavior.

    On top of all of this, her father, the parent who most loves her, dies from his alcoholism. Francie just can’t seem to catch a break.

    Throughout the string of disappointments life throws her way, Francie doesn’t give up on everything. She fights for her chance at a quality education, and she is open to love, even after getting her heart smashed by her first love, Lee.

    By the end of the novel, our girl Francie has grown into a confident, realistic, and hardworking woman who is still open to adventure. We're pretty proud of how far she's come, and watching her grow and change from childhood on makes this a coming of age novel.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    While it is true that you will read a little bit about an actual tree that grows in Brooklyn, don’t worry—this book isn't all about the tree and how it grows. Phew, right? That would be a total snoozer.

    But if it’s not all about this literal tree, then what is up with the title? Well, the tree and Francie have quite a bit in common. The specific type of tree in the backyard is a very strong tree that can grow in even the worst conditions. It doesn’t really need much to thrive, and there have even been cases where this tree has grown up through concrete. It’s that tough.

    Francie, our protagonist, loves this tree. Its leaves surround the fire escape, and Francie sits there and pretends like she is living in the tree. Francie is growing up in poverty, so poor that there are plenty of times when she doesn't get enough to eat. This is real deal poverty, and yet Francie thrives anyway… just like the tree. Mama even comes right out and compares her to the tree when Francie is a baby and people keep telling her that Francie is too weak to survive.

    At the very end of the novel, we see the tree again. It was cut down a while ago because people thought it was a nuisance, and when Francie looks out the window she notices that another tree is growing right out of the stump. This darn tree refuses to be beaten—much like tenacious Francie. These two just never give up, and the title helps establish their similarities.

    The new little tree sprouting from the trunk of the old one is now growing for Flossie and anyone else who lives in the neighborhood. The tree that grows in Brooklyn is there to inspire folks to bust through the challenges that come their way, to stand tall in the face of poverty and figure out a way to thrive too.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The end of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn ties things up nicely and slaps a pretty bow on top. Seriously—things come together pretty neatly.

    Francie is off to college at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. This resolves the main conflict in Francie's life, and her dreams of education are pretty much fulfilled. Now she's just got to pass all her courses, and not blow off assignments to go party or sleep through 8:00AM classes. But, come on—we all know Francie better than that. There's no way she's going to blow it now.

    Mama is getting married, which rocks for all involved. This is a win-win-win-win situation that enables Francie to go off to college without worrying about the financial security of her family. McShane's got tuition covered for all three Nolan kids, plus Annie Laurie is going to grow up with a dad and Mama can finally rest her weary hands (though she works right up until they get married… can't say she isn't principled). For his part, McShane gets a family that he seems thrilled to join.

    Remember how Francie didn’t like the ending of one of the plays she saw because of its improbable ending? Literary types call endings where the characters are saved in some miraculous way deus ex machina endings, and Francie doesn't like them at all. Is the marriage to McShane an example of deus ex machina? Is it not because the family would have been fine without him?

    Shmoop's favorite part of the ending, though, is Francie's goodbye tour of Brooklyn. Have you ever thought, “Oh, you just wait and see!—when I’m older, I’ll show you!” We totally have, which might explain why we love it so much when Francie confronts some of the jerks from her past. She goes to Cheap Charlie’s, slaps her money on the table, and busts him for pulling a fast one on so many kids. She tells him what she thinks about his nasty game, and buys a doll on the condition that some little kid actually wins it someday. From hear she marches to the library, where she demands that the librarian who's ignored her for so many years actually look at her.

    These may seem like small acts, but they are very meaningful and show us that Francie is not a woman to be messed with. She is grown now, and taking command.

    While a lot of questions are answered in the end, after Francie whispers goodbye to her former self there still might be some stuff that you're wondering about. How does college go? What does Francie do for work when she gets out? Does she marry Ben? Does she get married at all? Does she have kids? Where does she live as an adult?

    Like Francie did after the play, do you want to rewrite or add to the ending of this novel? Or is this ending enough for you?

  • Setting

    The Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, 1900-1918

    Do you have a trip planned to visit Brooklyn? Good news—if you carry this book with you, it’s probably just as good as a map, so save your dollars to buy a bag of nuts from a street vendor instead. Seriously, you couldn’t get a more specific setting if you tried. Consider this one small section:

    “Francie walked up Manhattan Avenue reading aloud the fine-sounding names of the streets she passed: Scholes, Meserole, Montrose, and then Johnson Avenue. These last two Avenues were where the Italians had settled. The district called Jew Town started at Seigel Street, took in Moore and McKibben and went past Broadway” (1.32).

    And there are a million more examples like that throughout the whole book. It's so precise, in fact, that if you have a couple extra hours to spare, you can probably figure out where the tenement buildings stood, where the disappointing and nice schools were, and even find your way to Cheap Charlie’s and the 5&10 store, along with every other place mentioned.

    But it’s not just street names that give this book a sense of setting. There are sensory details galore that help transport you to this very specific time and place. When Francie walks through “Graham Avenue, the Ghetto street[,] She was excited by the filled pushcarts—each a little store in itself—the bargaining, emotional Jews and the peculiar smells of the neighborhood; baked stuffed fish, sour rye bread fresh from the oven, and something that smelled like honey boiling. She stared at the bearded men in their alpaca skull caps and silkolene coats and wondered what made their eyes so small and fierce” (1.35). In other words, her streets come alive through Smith's careful description of the people, smells, and sounds of the time.

    The Difference Between Memory and Reliving

    “If I fix every detail of this time in my mind, I can keep this moment always," she thought. (48.12)

    On the day war is declared, Francie stops to collect all sorts of stuff to put into an envelope. She thinks, “If I open this envelope fifty years from now, I will be again as I am now and there will be no being old from me.” She realizes that by adding the right details, you can almost relive a time, and maybe that’s why she included so many details in her book.

    Reading this book might help you gain a historical perspective that you wouldn’t get reading a textbook, but even though it is very specific in setting, it isn't only relevant for people at that time and place. Though it gives us a pretty accurate picture of history, the book is brimming with themes that transcend time and place.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    No sweat, Shmoopians—you’ve totally got this. You aren’t going to be dictionary.com-ing this book too much, and Betty Smith isn't all about showing off her huge vocab or writing things in a complicated flowery way. The biggest issue you may have, in fact, has nothing to do with language: this isn’t really a plot-driven story.

    Sure there is a story and all (we promise), but this novel is mostly about getting to know the characters and their world very intimately. And, well, that type of novel can feel tough to get into. Worry not though, folks, because the thing about novels like this is that, if you give them a chance, you may end up feeling really connected to the characters long after you finish reading the novel. When you get to know characters this well, they're hard to shake after you turn the final page.

    In fact, we feel pretty confident that you might miss Francie when the book is over. We sure do.

  • Writing Style

    Honest, Sympathetic, Detailed, Unadorned

    Honest and Sympathetic

    Smith is very honest in her writing and consistently tells it like it is. We know Mama loves Neeley more than she loves Francie because Smith comes right out and tells us “It was pity and obligation towards her that she felt rather than love” (10.46). Brrr… that’s a cold way to describe how a mom feels for her child, right?

    Well, that’s what we mean when we say Smith tells it like it is. She goes on to describe Katie as having “lost all her tenderness” by the time Neeley was a year old. It's a little hard to stomach, but there's no confusion at all about where Katie's coming from.

    Smith is also is sympathetic to Mama, though, and shows her as capable, hardworking, and sometimes insecure. When she thinks about McShane, Mama doesn’t believe he could ever like someone like her. She thinks he will probably marry a “woman who knows about social life [. . .] the way a politician’s wife must” (42.90). Then, Smith adds the little detail about Mama hiding her hands to emphasize her insecurity. This helps humanize Mama and makes us warm up to her a bit.

    Smith does the same thing with mixing honesty and sympathy with Sissy’s character. Sissy drips sex and lust wherever she goes, but while her promiscuity is not glossed over, Smith also lets us know that she is probably the kindest woman who ever lived.

    Sissy is the one who is called in to help Johnny get through some painful sobering up periods. She is compassionate and giving but doesn’t have the best judgment all the time—especially when it comes to toys that she gives the children. Smith gives us an honest and sympathetic look at Sissy and leaves us unable to define her with one word.

    We could go on and on here with all of the characters. Smith’s honesty and sympathetic style makes it impossible for us to make over-generalizations about the characters.

    Detailed

    Smith gives us an experience not just a story.

    Remember how on the day the US joins the war Francie collects all the items around her to put in an envelope to open fifty years later? By saving all these little details, the day can be relived and not just a memory.

    Smith takes this same idea and leads us through a story so that we almost feel like we relive it, even though we weren’t there.

    She does this by giving us specific details. For instance, we know exactly what the coffee, tea, and spices store looks and smells like:

    There were a dozen scarlet coffee bins with adventurous words written across the front in black China ink […] The tea man had a wonderful pair of scales: two gleaming brass plates which had been rubbed and polished daily for more than twenty-five years until now they were think and delicate and looked like burnished gold. (16.7-10)

    And here's a description of the new school:

    Its old bricks glowed garnet in the late afternoon sun. There was no fence around the school yard and the school grounds were grass and not cement. Across from the school, it was practically open country—a meadow with goldenrod, wild asters and clover growing in it. (23.3)

    Bricks that glow? Would you describe your school as glowing? Francie totally loves this school.

    There are tons of other details throughout the book: Papa’s footsteps coming up to the apartment as he sings "Molly Malone;" Francie’s shuddering as she passes by the rooms with the airshafts; the rich family background. They all come together to paint a vivid picture—both of Brooklyn and the emotional and mental lives of the characters.

    Unadorned

    Some writers like to jazz up their writing by coming up with the fanciest possible way of saying something. Not Betty Smith, though—her writing is not on literary device overload.

    Take this for example: “If [Francie] had not found this outlet in writing, she might have grown up to be a tremendous liar” (26.35). That’s pretty blunt, right? It definitely gets right to the point.

    It seems like Smith just wants to tell the story and let it speak for itself. Other than the tree, there aren’t any major symbols or elaborate similes and metaphors in this book.

    This isn't to say that there aren't some moments when Smith shows that she can use figurative language just as well as anyone else. When Francie is talking down about some of her writing, she thinks her words are “like words that came in a can; the freshness was cooked out of them” (30.3). Another time, Francie compares her family to a cracked cup after they had a fight. She says, “It was whole and sound and held things well. When Papa died, the first crack came. And this fight tonight made another crack. Soon there will be so many cracks that the cup will break and we’ll all be pieces instead of a whole thing together” (44.126). Yup—Smith can dazzle with the best of them, and we think it's pretty cool that she often does so through Francie, an aspiring writer. These moments are the exception, though, and in general Smith's language is not all dressed up for a formal occasion—much like the lives she's writing about.

  • The Tree of Heaven

    Let’s say you never even read one page of this book and your teacher calls on you.

    “Okay, student, name a symbol in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, please.” You squirm.

    “Uhhh, ummm… the tree… that grows… in Brooklyn?” You anticipate giggling jeers from the rest of the class. But instead you are shocked with:

    “Excellent work, Student.”

    Score.

    Yes—in this book, it is just that easy. Like we discussed in the section on writing style, Smith is not really trying to be all literary, poetic, and tricky. Instead, she tells it how it is. In case the title isn’t enough for you to think that this tree might be important in some literary way, one of the very first things described is the tree (the one that grows in Brooklyn). Smith might as well have said, “Listen, this tree is a symbol and a metaphor, so pay attention.”

    Tree as Symbol

    Okay, let’s get a bit technical for a second here. A symbol is something concrete, something you can touch, that represents something abstract, or something you cannot touch—like how the American flag symbolizes freedom to many people. You can touch the American flag, though you cannot touch freedom. So what does the tree symbolize?

    Let’s look at some facts about the tree:

    • It needs very little to grow—wherever its seeds fall, a tree will grow.
    • Even in the most challenging and least fertile areas, it will thrive. It can even grow through concrete.
    • Francie loves pretending she lives in the tree when she sits on the fire escape that is surrounded by its leaves.
    • If you cut this tree down, another tree will grow up from its stump.

    If you had to describe the tree as though it was a human, how would you describe its character? Might you say it is very determined? Hopeful? Your answers to this question are what the tree symbolizes. What do you think?

    Tree as Metaphor 

    A metaphor is a comparison between two things, and in this book, we see a clear comparison between the nature of the tree and Francie’s nature.

    How can Shmoop be so sure? First, the author pretty much comes out and tells us that Francie is like the tree. Francie is very sickly during her first year. In fact, many people tell Mama that they don’t think she will live because she is so weak. Mama responds by saying that, just like the tree that grows strong out of the grating with little exposure to the sun, “my children will be strong that way” (10.35).

    This line, combined with the fact that Francie just really likes the tree a lot and pretends to live amongst its branches shows us that this tree and our main girl are connected.

    Before a single character is described in this book, the tree is. The claim is that, “No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky” (1.4). Does this remind you of a character in the book? It totally makes us think of Francie. Despite being born into a legacy of poverty, doesn't Francie reach the sky anyway? You might go so far as to say that this description of the tree foreshadows Francie's entire trajectory in the novel.

    The tree is also one of the very last things we see. Francie looks out the window and notices that, “A new tree had grown from the stump” of the tree that was cut down “and its trunk had grown along the ground until it reached a place where there were no wash lines above it. Then it had started to grow toward the sky again” (56.147). Again, this reminds us of Francie. Do you agree? 

    We think that Francie is determined to grow not matter what, just like the tree.

  • Music

    This novel is so musical that it could easily come along with a soundtrack—just check out the long list of tunes in the "Shout Out" section for a possible playlist.

    Music means different things to different characters, and in this way it helps us understand each character a little better.

    Papa

    Because he is so connected to his music, we might see him as the character who is most idealistic and the least realistic.

    He loves old, romantic folk songs that tell of things the way they “should” be. He tries to earn a living through his love of music, though it provides no stability for his family. Plus, he isn’t even allowed to sing the songs he most loves at work, instead making money by singing what other people want to hear.

    Papa gets frustrated when life isn’t like his songs. When his trip to the ocean doesn’t go as planned, he feels betrayed by the songs: “He had sung many a song about ships and going down to the sea in them with a heave ho and heave to. He wondered why it hadn’t turned out the way it said in songs” (29.49). Papa’s songs of the sea didn’t include lines about wearing hats to prevent burns or the possibility of seasickness, so he doesn’t think of those things either, though they end up being pretty key to having a nice day on the water. So what do you think is being said here about too much idealism? Maybe it can be dangerous? Disappointing? What do you think?

    In the end, Papa’s excessive drinking robs him of his singing voice. Devastated by the loss of his ability to make music, he dies very soon after. While we can certainly blame his alcoholism for deteriorating his health, if we think of Papa's love of music as representing his idealism, perhaps he also dies because he loses hope when he loses his voice.

    Neeley

    The older Neeley gets, the more he becomes Papa 2.0; one of the ways we know this is through his connection to music. There is one major difference, though: Papa sang for other people’s entertainment, and Neeley only plays the piano for his own enjoyment or artistic expression.

    Mama believes that Neeley is an artist whereas Papa was an entertainer. Why would it make such a big difference that Neeley only plays for his own enjoyment? Why does Mama think that his future is brighter than Papa’s because of this?

    Mama

    Let’s face it. Mama’s character is not warm and snuggly. She is usually all business, and Shmoop doesn’t blame her, really—someone has to make sure they don’t all starve to death. Because Papa is very idealistic, it forces Mama to be very realistic.

    But music helps soften Mama’s character a bit.

    She goes above and beyond just meeting her children’s needs to get piano lessons by trading her cleaning services for them. But hold on; before you go thinking that Mama is getting all soft on us, remember that this move is still part of her overall game plan to turn Neeley into the man that his father couldn’t be. While she wants her son to be a musician, she wants this to be a very different experience for him than it has been for his father.

    Francie

    Francie is very sensitive and observant of her surroundings, so it isn't much of a surprise that Francie is sensitive to music too. She is even moved to tears at times when Papa sings beautiful songs, overcome by her love for him and his music.

    She is also intuitive enough to realize that Papa’s life will soon be over when she hears him sing the final verse of "Molly Malone." After this, she “went to bed and buried her face in the pillow. She did not know why, but she wept” (34.82). In this moment, we see through music just how intuitive our girl Francie is.

    Francie is curious and interested in the world around her, and this includes music too. She loves listening to street musicians, and often follows them around from one neighborhood to the next. She even imagines that she will be part of a band when she grows up.

  • Mama’s Hands

    Mama is a pretty woman whose hands are “beautifully shaped with lovely, curved, oval nails” (1.39); they are also, however, “rough and red and cut into with cleansing fluids” (24.66). She often looks down at them sadly and tries to cover them up, and when she notices Sergeant McShane looking at her, she puts on gloves even though it is a hot day. She says, “I work so hard, sometimes I forget that I’m a woman” (24.66).

    Years later, when they are out celebrating the children’s graduation, Francie notices that Mama looks at her hands and then hides them under the table “as though she were ashamed of them” (42.90).

    When Mama is very pregnant with Annie Laurie, Francie offers to help Mama with the janitor’s work and puts her hands in the soapy water. Mama sharply tells her no and takes Francie’s hands out of the water, saying “ I don’t want your hands to get [work-scarred]. I want you to have nice hands always” (39.113).

    Why does Mama hate her hands? Why does she cover them up whenever she thinks of McShane? What does it tell us that she doesn’t want Francie to get the same hands?

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Omniscient)

    Point of View Broadens the Story

    Even though at times, the narrator feels like an older, wiser Francie, our narrator is clearly outside the story since we can hear what is going on inside many of characters’s minds. This is what makes this third person omniscient.

    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is much more than a plain old coming of age story. Francie is definitely the protagonist, but since there is a third person narrator, we know the struggles and joys of so many of the people around her. This book is about more than the journey of one little girl, and it can just as easily be understood as a story about complex family relationships or a story about an entire community struggling with poverty.

    Because the narrator can zoom away from Francie’s thoughts and perspective for a minute or two, the scope of the novel broadens. Had the author chosen to write in the first person, the book most likely would have been reduced to a simple coming-of-age story.

    Point of View and Tolerance

    This point of view provides a nonjudgmental look at many of the characters. With few exceptions (the sexual predator and Thomas Rommely for example), most of the characters are neither all good nor all bad, and instead allowed to be complex people.

    When you enter people’s minds, however briefly, you get to see things from a new perspective and usually learn that people are more complex than you may first think.

    Sissy is judged by her community for her sexual behavior, but not so much by the reader because we get to see how giving and kind she is. The omniscient narration (kind of like a bird's-eye-view) helps here because we learn things like “she was mother to everything that came her way [. . .] she loved the down-and-outers. She wanted to make everybody happy” (11.17).

    Johnny, who by most accounts might be considered a lousy father, is more pitied than hated because we get to see that his intentions are good. He is the person who Francie goes to for comfort; when he re-bandages her arm with his good undershirt, the narrator tell us “The cloth smelled of Johnny, warm and cigarish. But it was a comforting thing to the child. It smelled of protection and love” (18.47).

    Mama, who may appear cold to an outsider, softens for us as readers when we learn about what motivates her and her insecurities. While she could be interpreted as being mean for not making a big deal over the tree her kids win at Christmas, because of the narration, we know what is going on in her mind. She is just so sad that the only way her kids can get a tree is in such a demeaning way. She thinks, “My children must get out of this. They must come to more than Johnny or me or all these people around us. But how is this to come?” (27.35).

    Just like in life, when you get to know people, it is usually impossible to easily define them as exclusively good or bad, and in many ways, the author seems to be whispering a spirit of tolerance to us. We're all guilty of judging people too quickly, and it's good to be reminded that for the most part we're all just trying to find the best way through our days.

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial situation

      Hello—is it Tree You're Looking For?

      Ah, good ol’ Williamsburg, Brooklyn on a sunny Saturday in the poorest of tenements at the turn-of-the twentieth century. Wait—this isn't your idea of paradise? Well, it is as close to paradise as Francie Nolan, our protagonist in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, knows. Eleven-year-old Francie walks us around and introduces us to her neighborhood, her family, and herself. She’s shaping up to be a very informative tour guide, with a pretty interesting cast of characters surrounding her. Oh yeah—and Francie's pretty cool herself, too.

      Conflict

      Movin' on Up

      From the moment that Francie is born, Mama is determined that her children make something more of their lives. After strategizing with her mother about how to do this, a plan is set in motion: Mama must save money for land and educate, educate, educate her children. It’s not as easy as it sounds, and their level of poverty is the life threatening kind. Add Papa's drinking to the mix, and things start looking pretty bleak.

      Complication

      It Ain't Easy

      It’s rough going, but Mama doesn’t give up. She moves her family not once, but twice to maintain their dignity and keep a roof over their heads. When Papa cannot be counted on at all because his drinking is out of control, Mama finds a building where she can work as a janitress in exchange for rent.

      Francie and Neeley start school, but the conditions are terrible and it is an overcrowded and mean place. Eventually, Francie gets into a different school where she winds up caught in a lie, but instead of getting her in trouble her teacher tries to help her focus her imagination. Francie really benefits from this bit of advice and starts writing.

      Climax

      Growing Up is Just a Matter of Time

      Francie notices things are not quite as magical as they once were. She knows when a play is poorly written, and she knows that the game her mother plays with them is only to keep their minds off their hunger. Growing up is full of little disappointments like these, but it’s also full of big letdowns like her experiences with hypocrisy, cruelty, and sexual violence. Things definitely aren’t as shiny and mysterious as they once were, and then to top it all off, Papa goes and dies of his alcoholism and pneumonia.

      Suspense

      Working Girl

      So now what? Francie is lost without her father’s love, and Mama has never really been able to love Francie the same way. Plus, even though he contributed very little financially, even that small amount is sorely missed. It looks like a no-brainer that Francie is going to have to drop out of grade school and go to work. Good-bye to education, and good-bye to Mama’s dreams.

      Not so fast—the family makes it through the last few months of grade school and Francie is able to graduate. But what about high school? Not now unfortunately. Francie must work to support the family, which means entering the workforce and competing with women twice her age. Soon enough though, Francie rises through the ranks and earns a respectable wage. It’s even more than most grown men in her neighborhood make, which isn't too shabby. Our girl Francie has bigger plans, though.

      Denouement

      I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends

      Mama is confident that Sergeant McShane wants to marry her, and she is right. He not only wants to marry Mama, but also take care of the entire family financially. They will move out of the tenements and all the children can afford college; Francie no longer needs to support the family. After she passes her entrance exam, she prepares to go off to college. Ben, a guy she met in class, gives her a ring. She’s not sure if she will marry Ben, but she’s not ruling it out at this point.

      Conclusion

      Farewell 

      We join Francie on another trip around her neighborhood. This time, however, we have a much more mature, confident, and reflective Francie as a tour guide. She speaks her mind and settles old scores, including stopping by Cheap Charlie’s and buying a toy for a kid to actually win and confronting the nasty librarian who has ignored her for years.

      As Francie prepares for her date with Ben, she looks at the old tree. It was cut down—but there is a strong, new tree sprouting up from its stump.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      Irish Folk Songs

      • “Molly Malone” (This song is frequently sung by Papa when he returns home at the end of the night.) 
      • “Annie Laurie” (15.31, 40.148)
      • “Call me Up Some Rainy Afternoon” (15.36)
      • “Sweet Adeline” (15.36)
      • “My Wild Irish Rose” (54.23)

      Songs of the time period:

      • “She May Have Seen Better Days” (9.5)
      • “I’m Wearin’ My Heart Away For You” (9.5)
      • “Blue Danube” (13.59)
      • “School Days” (23.42)
      • “You’re a Grand Old Flag” (25.26)
      • “Come Little Leaves” (35.40)
      • “Welcome, Sweet Springtime” (35.41)
      • “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” (42.88)
      • “Auld Lang Syne” (46.46.26)
      • “A Shanty in Old Shantytown” (49.52)
      • “When You Wore a Tulip” (49.52)
      • “Dear Old Girl” (49.52)
      • “I’m Sorry I Made you Cry” (49.52)
      • “Over There” (49.53)
      • “K-K-K-Katy” (49.53)
      • “The Rose of No Man’s Land” (49.53)
      • “Mother Machree” (49.54)
      • “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” (49.54)
      • “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” (49.54)
      • “The Band Played on” (49.54)
      • “Some Sunday Morning” (52.106-113)
      • “Till We Meet Again” (52.115-120, 55.60)
      • “Hello, Central, Give Me No Man’s Land” (55.5)
      • “There’s a Quaker Down in Quaker Town” (55.7)
      • “You’ll Find Old Dixieland in France” (55.14)
      • “For When My Baby Smiles at Me” (55.58)
      • “There are Smiles That Make You Happy” (55.59)

      Literary References

      Biblical/ Catholic

      • Confession (6.26)
      • Purgatory (12.47)
      • Begat (13.13)
      • First Communion (28.17)
      • The Virgin Mary (34.22)
      • Gethsemane (42.6)
      • Father, son, and Holy Ghost (47.60)

      Historical References

      • Abraham Lincoln (1.60, 41.35)
      • The Mayflower (23.14)
      • Big Chief Tammany (24.6)
      • Dr. Frederick Cook (25.40)
      • Woodrow Wilson (41.18-23)
      • Charlie Chaplin (41.26)
      • Corset Payton (41.26)

      Art References

      • Mona Lisa (24.46)