Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Tone

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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.

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