Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Setting

By Betty Smith

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.