Study Guide

Mary Frances Nolan (Francie) in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

By Betty Smith

Mary Frances Nolan (Francie)

Our Sensitive, Observant Leader

Even though A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is written in the third person, it definitely feels like the narrator is an older and wiser Francie much of the time.

Because of her heightened sensitivity, she is able to know what people are thinking and what motivates them. For example, she knows that her mother prefers her brother; she knows her mother has some feelings for Sergeant McShane; and she knows her mother is ashamed of her hands and hides them when she thinks about him. She also knows Papa really loves her. Even though he isn’t a perfect father, she knows what is in his heart, and this makes her prefer her father to her mother. Bottom line: she sees the best in most people, even those who others may judge harshly—like her father, Aunt Sissy, and the unwed mother, Joanna.

The Best of Mama in Francie

Francie is the best parts of Mama. She is incredibly hard working, capable, and determined, even learning to read despite being completely ignored by her teacher. Once Francie learns to read, she is determined to read all the books in the world. It may seem a ridiculous goal (and it probably is) but she sets off to do it, reading one book every day.

This is much like Mama, who is convinced that she will be able to get her kids through college. At this time, and especially for people living deep in poverty like the Nolans are, this may seem as ridiculous a goal as trying to read all the books in the world. The thing is, Mama pulls it off. And who knows, maybe Francie pulled off her goal, too. (Okay, probably not… but she does achieve the goal she sets for herself when she is a little more mature: She enters college without having to attend high school.) Francie, like Mama, sets her sights high, works to achieve her goals, and really gets places because of it.

Francie also follows her mother's model when it comes to men. The first time Mama dances with Papa, she decides that he will be hers. She is willing to sacrifice everything just to have him and ultimately does whatever it takes to keep him in her family, including working as a janitress and raising their children pretty much alone.

We see almost a mirror image of this dancing scene when Francie dances with Lee. Just like Mama did, Francie feels like she would sacrifice anything for Lee. For better or for worse though, Lee disappoints Francie promptly, abruptly ending her first love experience and sparing us all from knowing what might have happened to Francie if she'd sacrificed everything for him the way her mother did for her father.

It's nice to see that Francie is a bit of a romantic, just like Mama was before life hardened her.

Papa in the Mix

Francie doesn’t get all the best of Papa.

She isn’t charming and quick to make friends like Papa is, for instance, but she seems to get some other good qualities from him. She has a heightened awareness of beauty and art, and finds beauty all around her despite living in a run down neighborhood.

Francie is struck by the beauty of the shiny scales at the coffee and tea shop, and admires the beautiful toy display in the shop windows at Christmas even though she won’t be getting any. She loves the tree in the backyard and the ways its leaves envelop the fire escape where she sits and reads, and adores the little brown bowl on the librarian’s desk. And just like her dad, Francie loves music. The street musicians who come around make Francie very happy and she dreams of being part of a band when she gets older.

Unlike Papa though, she does not seem to have a great gift for performing or creating music. She is a competent piano player after lessons, but not nearly like Neeley, who excels. This does not make her any less sensitive to music, though. In fact, when Papa sings the final verse of "Molly Malone," she instinctively knows that things do not look good for him, even though she can’t put it into words at the time.

She just knows.

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