Study Guide

Katie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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Katie Nolan

What a strong character we have in Katie Nolan. When you think of Katie, words like determined, hard-working, capable, creative, proud, and honest might come to mind. The moment Katie becomes a mother, she is determined to create a better life for her children. She begs her own mother for advice, and her mom tells her that education and landownership are the ways to get out of poverty.

Katie is determined to achieve these goals, while also making sure her family survives and always maintaining her pride. Very often, Katie is characterized by her hands: She is described as having quick hands—indicating that she is a capable worker—but she is also described as feeling ashamed of her hands, which are red and cracked from hard work. More than just about anything, Katie does not want Francie’s hands to get this way.

Katie is focused on getting her kids out of poverty through education. What makes this even harder is that she does this pretty much without a husband because, while technically married, Papa is far from dependable. Katie has big plans for her children, including attending high school (in a time when high school was more a luxury than an expectation like it is today). Even when Papa dies, she makes sure her kids don’t drop out of school. It seems like Mama always finds a way.

Katie finds ways to cut corners to save pennies, and is creative in her frugality. She knows to go to one butcher for the best bones and another for the chopped meat, while also understanding that the occasional extravagance is important to help people feel a little less poor. For example, she gives the kids coffee every day, and they are allowed to do with it whatever they would like, which is sometimes just dumping it down the drain after holding it and smelling it for a while. Mama has no problem with this—she thinks it is nice that they can waste something.

Mama is a darn hard worker. When Papa cannot be depended upon to pay rent, she finds a place for the family to stay where she can be the janitor instead of having to pay rent. While Katie must work in order for her kids to have a place to stay and food to eat, she takes it a step further when she trades her cleaning service for piano lessons. She takes the lesson herself, but it is really so she can then teach the lesson to her children.

Pride is important to Katie, and she will not be having any sort of charity. She will not take the money that the officers collect for her as a reward for helping them catch the sexual predator, nor will she accept the money from Mr. McGarrity—who Johnny owed money at the time of his death—even at a time when her family could use the help desperately. She even tells her sisters one day that before she would ever accept charity, she would kill herself and the whole family.

This seems a little extreme, right? What do you think Katie is so afraid of? Remember that pride also motivates Katie to move her family—once after Johnny struggles through sobering up and once after Sissy embarrasses her. Do you think Katie cares too much about what other people think, or is this the only way to make sure her children have a better life?

Francie believes that her mother never fumbles, that nothing flusters her and she knows what to do and gets is done. Mama, however, is not perfect. By the time she has Neeley, life has really hardened her. She is not at all a warm woman, and Francie knows that Mama does not love her as much as she loves her brother. Papa always took care of the emotional side of parenting, so with him dead, parental warmth is pretty limited.

What Katie sets her mind to, she gets: She decides on Papa and gets him; she decides on getting her kids educated and gets that; and finally comes Sergeant McShane. Even though some part of Katie thinks that he may want someone a bit more connected politically, she just knows he will ask her to get married as soon as his letter arrives. Through this marriage, Mama and the children are financially set. She will no longer have to work, but she insists on continuing her janitress duties until the very end. She also refuses to spend any of the money that her fiancé gives her on herself until they are married. She is not some helpless woman in need of her prince, and she would have been perfectly able to live without him, though it is nice that she will not have to struggle as much.

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