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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.