Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Quotes

  • Perseverance

    After each futile birth, her love of children grew stronger. (7.61)

    Phew. After suffering so many heartbreaks, is amazes Shmoop that Sissy still tries and tries to have a child.

    Thus I lost the second savings. But I am saving again. Maybe sometime… (9.102)

    Even though her hard-earned savings are stolen from her twice before, Grandma Rommelly is not going to let that stop her from trying to save for land again.

    “[…] Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way.” (10.35)

    When she is a baby, Francie looks too weak to survive her first year, and everyone likes to tell Mama about it. This is her way of telling them to go jump off a cliff. Francie will overcome her problems and grow strong like the tree. Are people stronger if they have to fight for something?

    Katie had the same hardships as Johnny and she was nineteen, two years younger. It might be said that she, too, was doomed. Her life, too, was over before it began. But there the similarity ended. Johnny knew he was doomed and accepted it. Katie wouldn’t accept it. She started a new life where her old one left off […] Katie had a fierce desire for survival which made her a fighter. (10.49-51)

    When it comes to Johnny and Katie’s perseverance, there is clearly a winner and a loser.

    She wanted the Nolans to be better and not as good as anybody. Too there was the question of money. Although it was no question because they had very little and now had two children […] She found a house where she would get rent free in return for keeping it clean (12.1-2).

    Papa’s embarrassing alcoholic rantings will not hold Mama back. Even with no money, she will find a way to start over someplace else. That’s one tough and creative lady.

    People looking up at her—at her smooth pretty vivacious face—had no way of knowing about the painfully articulated resolves formulating in her mind (27.39).

    Few people know just how difficult your personal journey is, especially if you do not tell people about it. Be kind to everyone; we all fight our own battles.

    “But Mama, how’ll we get along till summer?”

    “We’ll manage.” (38.7-8)

    Where there is a will, there is a way, and it’s all about mind over matter, folks.

    “With that money, our troubles would be over,” thought Francie. “We could pay rent on a three-room flat somewhere, Mama wouldn’t have to go out to work and Laurie wouldn’t be left alone so much. I guess I’d be pretty important if I could manage something like that."

    “But I want to go back to school!” She recalled the constant harping on education in the family (44.79-81).

    Sometimes we stand in the way of reaching our goals ourselves.

    “Because if I don’t make him, he’ll never go back,” said Mama, “where you, Francie, will fight and manage to get back somehow.” “Why are you so sure all the time?” protested Francie (44.101-102).

    Mama must push Neeley—he doesn’t have the same drive that Francie has, which is a pretty big bummer for Francie. Her brother is just one more thing standing in her way.

    Francie took the examinations and flunked everything but chemistry. “Oh, well! I should have known,” she told her mother. “If people could get into college that easy, no one would ever bother with high school. But don’t you worry, Mama. I know what the entrance examinations are now, and I’ll pass next year. It can be done and I’ll do it. You’ll see” (49.46-47).

    Failing a test is no biggie. She’ll pass it next time.

  • Gender

    Carney liked girls better than boys. He would give a girl an extra penny if she did not shrink when he pinched her cheek. (1.15)

    Would a person who honestly liked you give you money in exchange for pinching you? Seems a strange kind of like, right?

    Neeley was ten, a year younger than Francie. But he was the boy; he handled the money. (1.20)

    This quote is a reflection of the rigid gender roles of the early 1900s. Can you think of any gender roles that still exist?

    The bride’s voice would be soft and pleading, his, rough and demanding. Then there would be a short silence. Then he would start snoring and the wife would cry piteously until nearly morning. (6.61)

    Due to the way the airshaft is constructed, sound from all the apartments travels. Unfortunately, this exposes Francie to the horrifying sounds of a husband raping his wife on a regular basis. Francie tries to avoid hearing her cries by sleeping in the front room whenever possible.

    She wept when they gave birth to daughters, knowing that to be born a woman meant a life of humble hardship. (7.46)

    Grandma knows that life is harder on women.

    They went to City Hall, where Sissy swore that she was eighteen, and were married by one of the clerks. The neighbors were shocked but Mary knew that marriage was the best thing that could happen to her highly sexed daughter. (7.50)

    Why does Mary think this is the next best thing for her daughter? What was she afraid would happen if she didn’t get married?

    That was Joanna’s crime, decided Francie—not that she had been bad, but that she had not been smart enough to get the boy to the church. (30.46)

    Francie speculates that the women don’t hate Joanna because she has sex before marriage, but that instead it might be because Joanna didn't “pay the price” for it by getting married when she’s caught. If they had to get married, why doesn’t she have to get married, too?

    Carney did not pinch my cheek today. He pinched something else. I guess I’m getting too big to sell junk. (32.16)

    “Oh well, I guess I can’t sell junk anymore without getting my booty pinched.” That’s how deeply ingrained sexism was in the early 1900s. What do you think Francie's reaction would be if she lived in modern times? How much progress do you think we've made?

    “Well, tell us why girls are different from boys.”

    Mama thought a while. “The main difference is that a little girl sits down when she goes to the bathroom and a little boys stands up.”

    “But Mama,” said Francie. “I stand up when I’m afraid in that dark toilet.

    “And I,” confessed Neeley, “sit down when…”

    Mama interrupted. “Well, there’s a little bit of man in every woman and a little bit of woman in every man.”

    That ended the discussion because it was so puzzling to the children that they decided to go no further with it (33.12-17)

    Mama’s puzzling response to the kids is an interesting thought. Is gender really more of a spectrum? Are we just blends of gender expectations for both men and women? Mama’s thought seems very ahead of its time, in a way.

    “But I can still feel where it touched.” She moaned and cried out insanely, “I want my leg cut off.” (33.74)

    When Francie is attacked she feels completely violated and disgusted. She can still feel where the man’s penis touched her leg, and she wants it gone, even if that means injuring herself further.

    “So a man pinched you on the El,” she said. “I wouldn’t let that bother me. It means you’re getting a good shape and there are some men who can’t resist a woman’s shape. Say! I must be getting old! It’s been years since anybody pinched me on the El. There was a time when I couldn’t ride in a crowd without coming home black and blue,” she said proudly.” (44.51)

    Sissy sees it as an honor that a man would think she was good looking enough to pinch, and buys in whole heartedly to the belief that some men just can't help themselves around women. It’s a twisted way of blaming the victim, in addition to not thinking very highly of men (puppies can't help themselves, not grown men).

  • Society and Class

    The stable was finer than any house in the neighborhood and the yard was the prettiest in Williamsburg. (2.27)

    Things must be pretty bad when the best house around belongs to animals.

    Mr. Tomony who owned the pawn shop came home in a hansom cab from his spendthrift evening in New York […] Some day she would go across Williamsburg Bridge […] and find her way uptown in New York to where these fine places were and take a good look at the outside (6.56-58).

    Mr. Tomony, oddball or not, exposes Francie to a different lifestyle. Not everyone is poor, so maybe she doesn’t have to be, either.

    She pointed to a swarm of dirty children playing in the gutter. “You could take any one of them and wash him good and dress him up and sit him in a fine house and you would think he was beautiful.” (10.37)

    Katie believes there are no real differences among the classes. Scrub up a dirty kid, and bam—you’d never know she was poor.

    “Filth, filth, filth, from morning to night. I know they’re poor but they could wash. Water is free and soap is cheap. Just look at that arm, nurse.” (16.16)

    Ok, doc, let’s take a little look at where you went wrong here. First of all, poor kids aren’t dirty because their parents are too lazy to wash them; they are too busy working several jobs, so they don’t always have time to keep kids from making mud pies. Secondly, don't say all this right in front of your patient. We assume that you only did so because you assume that poor = stupid, but we're here to let you know that Francie is one of the smartest kids in all five boroughs. In short, we don't like you or your classist attitude.

    A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the bootstrap route has two choices. Having risen from his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion and understanding in his heart for those he has left behind him in the cruel upclimb. The nurse had chosen the forgetting way. (16.22)

    People forget what it is like to be poor. Those who leave poverty are often quick to lose any kind of compassion or empathy for those who still struggle, which is too bad because these are people who are in a great position to help.

    When the needle jabbed, Francie never felt it. The waves of hurt stated by the doctor’s words were racking her body and drove out all other feeling. (16.23)

    Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. What kind of schmoop is that, huh? Fact is, words hurt, and they hurt even more coming from someone who is in a position of authority.

    She had been in school but half a day when she knew that she would never be a teacher’s pet. That privilege was reserved for a small group of girls [. . .] They were the children of the prosperous storekeepers of the neighborhood [. . .] Miss Brigg’s voice was gentle when she spoke to these fortune-favored few, and snarling when she spoke to the great crowd of the unwashed. (19.3)

    School, like life, can be an unfair place. Francie isn’t going to have an easy time getting what she wants here either because of her poverty.

    “They think it’s good—the tree they got for nothing and their father playing up to them and the singing and the way the neighbors are happy. They think they’re mighty lucky that they’re living and that it’s Christmas again. They can’t see that we live on a dirty street in a dirty house among people who aren’t much good. (27.35)

    More than anything, Mama wants her kids out of this place. She is afraid that they will settle for this life because the people around them have settled for it.

    [Miss Jackson] can live in the middle of a dirty neighborhood and be fine and clean and like an actress in a play; someone you can look at who is too fine to touch. There is that difference between her and Mrs. McGarrity who has so much money but is too fat and acts in a dirty way with the truck drivers who deliver her husband’s beer. So what is this difference between her and this Miss Jackson who has no money? [. . .] Education! That was it! It was what made the difference. Education would pull them out of the grime and the dirt. (27.35-36)

    Do you think that if everyone has the same amount of education, there will no longer be any poverty?

    He missed Johnny. That was it. And it wasn’t the money, either, because Johnny always owed him. He had liked having Johnny around because he gave class to the place. (38.50)

    This is a bit ironic, isn’t it? Mr. McGarrity is a rich guy and Johnny is a poor guy, and yet the poor guy is the one who brings the class to McGarrity’s bar. It is usually assumed that only rich people have class, so this is pretty ironic—and might show how the author believes that class stereotypes are often wrong.

    “The difference between rich and poor,” said Francie, “is that the poor do everything with their hands and the rich hire hands to do things. We’re not poor any more. We can pay to have some things done for us."

    “I want to stay poor, then,” said Katie “because I like to use my hands.” (45.88-89)

    Different classes sometimes value different things. What else do you think Mama might have a hard time with now that she is a wealthier woman?

  • Education

    “What must I do, Mother, what must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?”

    “The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then she must read every day, I know this is the secret.” (9.57-58)

    Francie’s grandma sounds like she could have popped right off a public service announcement from today. Most professionals agree that reading to your children is one of the best things you can do for them.

    She yearned for playmates but did not know how to make friends with other little girls. The other youngsters avoided her because she talked funny. Owing to Katie’s nightly reading, Francie had a queer way for saying things. Once, when taunted by a youngster, she had retorted, “Aw, you don’t know what you’re saying. You’re just full of sound and furry siggaflying nothing.” (13.9)

    Do you know people who are outcast from their peers because they might be slightly advanced in their education? Why do you think this is?

    From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stores when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness with someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived. (22.3)

    Through reading, Francie is able to fill any void she may feel in her life. Have you ever felt close to a character in a novel at a time when you otherwise felt completely alone?

    Francie loved that school. It meant that she had to walk forty-eight blocks each day but she loved to walk, too […] It was a good thing that she got herself into this other school. It showed her that there were other worlds beside the world she had been born into and that these other worlds were not unattainable. (72-77)

    Some people believe that traveling is often the best teacher. This is the case for Francie, even though she didn’t have to travel far to see a whole new world of opportunity—just over one neighborhood. Have you ever gone somewhere and been amazed by how differently some people live?

    [Papa] had the same idea that Katie’s mother, Mary Rommely, had about education. He wanted to teach his children all that he knew so that at fourteen or fifteen, they would know as much as he knew at thirty. He figured they could go on from there picking up their own knowledge and, according to his calculations, when they reached thirty, they would be twice as smart as he had been at thirty. (25.3)

    The Nolan children are surrounded by people who value education. Since Grandma, Mama, and Papa all value education, chances are good that they will pass this on to their children.

    Francie was ten years old when she first found an outlet in writing. What she wrote was of little consequence. What was important was that the attempt to write stories kept her straight on the dividing line between truth and fiction. If she had not found this outlet in writing, she might have grown up to be a tremendous liar. (26.34-35)

    What’s the difference between a fiction writer and a liar? Turns out a writer just writes the lies instead. This little piece of advice is really huge for Francie.

    An answer came to Katie. It was so simple that a flash of astonishment that felt like pain shot through her head. Education! That was it! It was education that made the difference! Education would pull them out of the grime and the dirt […] Ah! That’s what Mary Rommely, her mother, had been telling her all those years. Only her mother did not have the one clear word: education!” (27.36)

    This is Katie’s epiphany—that education is the way out of poverty. From this moment forth, Mama is even more adamant that the kids get through high school.

    “…Maybe when she gets education, she will be ashamed of me—the way I talk.” (27.38)

    Mama knows that education will lift them out of poverty, but will it also pull her children always from her? Just like how sometimes people with more education are outcast from their peers, does it also make them outcasts in their own families? It's a real testament to how much Mama loves her children that she recognizes education might pull them away from her, but she wants it for them anyway.

    “With that money, our troubles would be over,” thought Francie. “We could pay rent on a three-bedroom flat somewhere, Mama wouldn’t have to go out to work and Laurie wouldn’t be left alone so much […]

    “But I want to go back to school!” She recalled the constant harping on education in the family.

    Granma: It will raise you up on the face of the earth.

    Evy: Each of my three children will get three diplomas.

    Sissy: And when Mother goes—pray God not for a long time yet—and baby is big enough to start kindergarten, I’m going out to work again. And I’ll bank my pay and when Little Sissy grows up, I’ll put her in the best college there is.

    Mama: And I don’t want my children to have the same hardworking life I have. Education will fix it so that their lives are easier (44.79-85).

    Francie’s promotion and raise temporarily make her question whether she should go back to school or not. But it is only for a split second, because she knows that school is the only way to make a good life for herself in the long run.

    My grandparents never knew how to read or write. Those who came before them couldn’t read or write. My mother’s sister can’t read or write. My parents never even graduated from grade school. I never went to high school. But I, M. Frances K. Nolan, am now in college. Do you hear that, Francie? You’re in college (48.93).

    She can’t believe it—she did it. The sense of accomplishment overwhelms her.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Francie thought that all the books in the world were in that library and she had a plan about reading all the books in the world. She was reading a book a day in alphabetical order and not skipping the dry ones. (2.1)

    Our girl has big plans. Not only does she have big plans though, she does what many people don’t do… she starts moving in their general direction. She’s on it.

    A head pain caught her between the eyes at the taking in of such a wonderful sight. It was something to be remembered all of her life. “When I get big,” she thought, “I will have such a brown bowl and in hot August there will be nasturtiums in it […] Yes, when I get big and have my own home, no plush chairs and lace curtains for me. And no rubber plants. I’ll have a desk like this in my parlor and white walls and a clean green blotter every Saturday night and a row of shining yellow pencils always sharpened for writing and a golden-brown bowl with a flower or some leaves or berries always in it and books… books… books…” (2.4-7)

    This girl knows what she wants, and what she wants is all things library inspired. Hey, we are all different, right? Her vision of what she wants and doesn’t want in her future home is very clear—especially for an eleven year old. That’s cool.

    “If I get a lot of tips tonight, I’ll put the money on a good horse that I know is running Monday. I’ll put a couple of dollars on him and win ten. Then I’ll put the ten on another horse I know and win a hundred. If I use my head and have any kind of luck at all, I’ll run it up to five hundred”

    Pipe dreams, he thought to himself, even while he was telling her about his dream winnings. But oh, how wonderful, he thought, if everything you talked about could come true! He went on talking. (3.46-47)

    Francie’s dreams are in stark contrast to her papa’s dreams. Papa’s dreams are just pretty thoughts. Even as he says it, he knows he is full of… um, hot air… is the nicer way of saying it.

    Flossie did three things each week. She worked on the gloves, she worked on her costumes, and she worked on Frank. (4.23)

    Even the minor characters in this novel seem to be motivated by clear dreams and plans. Flossie will not be satisfied until she gets Frank. And guess what? (Spoiler alert) She gets him in the end.

    Feeling his arms around her and instinctively adjusting herself to his rhythm, Katie knew that he was the man she wanted. She’d ask nothing more than to look at him and to listen to him for the rest of her life. Then and there, she decided that those privileges were worth slaving for all her life. (7.7)

    Katie is a girl who gets what she wants, and she wants Johnny. And that might just be her biggest mistake. Achieving our dreams doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness.

    “There is here, what there isn’t in the old country. In spite of hard unfamiliar things, there is here—hope. In the old country, a man can be no more than his father, providing he works hard. If his father was a carpenter, he may be a carpenter. He may not be a teacher or a priest. He may rise—but only to his father’s state. In the old country, a man is given to his past. Here he belongs to the future. In this land, he may be what he will, if he has the good heart and the way of working honestly at the right things.” (9.52)

    Ah, what we’ve got here Shmoopsters, is classic American Dream stuff. The American Dream: To do better than your parents at whatever you choose, to have a house on a little bit of land, to raise your children in a safe environment, and to have plenty of 4G coverage. That is what it’s all about. (Okay, maybe the 4G is a recent addition, but you hear us, right?) This is what Mary Rommely is talking about here to her daughter, Katie, who has just given birth to Francie.

    “The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then she must read every day, I know this is the secret.” (9.58)

    This is the central piece of the multi-tiered plan that Mary imparts to Katie. Education is key to pulling her children out of the tenements.

    “Before you die, you must own a bit of land—maybe with a house on it that your child or your children may inherit.” (9.84)

    The other cornerstone of Mary’s plan is to get some land. Mary has been after this dream for years and years herself. She saves and saves and then her plans get destroyed—once due to her illiteracy and once due to her husband being the spawn of Satan, if not Satan himself. Mary tells us that she is working on saving again. Fingers crossed.

    Katie would make [Neeley] into the kind of man Johnny should have been. (10.45)

    Sometimes our parents have plans for us that are not exactly our own plans. Luckily enough, Neeley doesn’t seem to mind, or be aware, of Mama’s plans for him.

    So, I will not go to high school. But I will go to college someday. (48.62)

    At first Francie is bummed because it doesn’t look like she will be able to go to high school. Then again, high school isn’t really her goal. Her goal is to be educated, so why not college without high school first? Sometimes, you have to think creatively to achieve your goals; if one way won’t work, find another.

  • Family

    Everyone said it was a pity that a slight pretty woman like Katie Nolan had to go out scrubbing floors. But what else could she do considering the husband she had, they said. They admitted that, no matter which way you looked at it, Johnny Nolan was a handsome lovable fellow far superior to any man on the block. But he was a drunk. That’s what they said and it was true. (1.39)

    Mama sacrifices a lot by marrying Papa. She is the responsible one, the one who has to get the bills paid somehow.

    “I am not a happy man. I got a wife and children and I don’t happen to be a hard-working man. I never wanted a family.”

    Again, that hurt around Francie’s heart. He didn’t want her or Neeley?

    […]

    Papa was no good. He said so himself. But she liked Papa better.

    “I love my wife and I love my children.” Francie was happy again. (3.40-44)

    There are all sorts of interesting relationships in families. Francie realizes that Papa isn’t an ideal father. In fact, he hurts her feelings at times by saying stuff like this, but he also knows how to smooth things over.

    Francie and Neeley got out of bed and they all sat around the table and ate after Papa had put three dollars down on the table and given the children each a nickel which Mama made them put in the tin-can bank explaining they had already received money that day from the junk […] So Johnny and Katie talked away the night and the rise and fall of their voices was a safe and soothing sound in the dark. (5.52-55)

    Every family has its own little routines. Most children love routines because they make them feel safe; they know what to expect. This is an example of one of the little family routines that Francie really loves. Her father sings as he climbs the stairs after working late and everyone gets up to chat and eat with Papa. The kids go back to bed soon after, listening to the comforting sounds of Mama and Papa chatting with each other all night. It is a sweet family time for them.

    [Thomas Rommely] never forgave any of his daughters for marrying. His philosophy about children was simple and profitable; a man enjoyed himself begetting them, put in as little money and effort into their upbringing as was possible, and then put them to work earning money for the father as soon as they got into their teens. (7.37)

    Yikes. This guy is not going to be on anyone’s short list for father of the year, and Francie is pretty lucky that her grandfather stays away from them. Mean old man, for sure. He’s not there for anyone and guess what? No one is there for him. Sometimes, you get what you give.

    Katie would make [Neeley] into the kind of man Johnny should have been. (10.45)

    Sometimes parents have expectations for their children that don’t account for their own individuality or desires. What do you think about Mama’s plan to make Neeley a perfected version of Papa?

    Gradually, as the children grew up, Katie lost all her tenderness although she gained in what people call character. She became capable, hard and far-seeing. She loved Johnny dearly but all the old wild worship faded away. She loved her little girl because she felt sorry for her. It was pity and obligation toward her that she felt rather than love. (10.46)

    Sometimes parents have favorites. What do you think of that? Is it possible to not have a favorite? Why do you think some people might prefer one child over another?

    She listened to everybody’s troubles but no one listened to hers. But that was right because Sissy was a giver and never a taker. (11.18)

    Most people play different roles in families. Sissy plays the role of the compassionate giver, and she is there for everyone. The trouble is that no one is really there for her.

    “All of us are what we have to be and everyone lives the kid of life it’s in him to live. You’ve got a good man, Katie.”

    “But he drinks.”

    “And he always will until he dies. There it is. He drinks. You must take that along with the rest.” (11.30-32)

    “I am what I am and that’s all that I am” Anyone? Anyone? Yep, that’s Popeye. That’s kind of what Sissy tells Katie. She’s got to accept Johnny for who he is. He may be a drunk, but in many ways, he is a good man. What do you think of this advice?

    “What Sissy does is her own business until her own business makes a think like this happen. I’ve got a growing girl, so have you, we mustn’t let Sissy come into our homes again. She’s bad and there’s no getting around it.” (14.26)

    Family members fight, and sometimes they say awful things to each other. They also do awful things sometimes and stop talking. If they are lucky, they make-up, piece relationships back together, and try again. This is what happens with Sissy and the rest of the family.

    “My brother is next. His arm is just as dirty as mine so don’t be surprised. And you don’t have to tell him. You told me.” (18.24)

    Go, Francie, go. Neeley in only one year younger than she is, but Francie is still in charge of watching him by the time she is four years old. Because of this, it is no surprise that she is very protective of him.

    He bandaged the arm. The cloth smelled of Johnny, warm and cigarish. But it was a comforting thing to the child. It smelled of protection and love.” (18.47)

    Johnny may not be perfect, but he loves Francie, and that is what truly matters most to her.

  • Coming of Age

    Francie turned and went down into the cellar and sat in the dark a long time waiting until the waves of hurt stopped breaking over her. It was the first of many disillusionments that were to come as her capacity to feel things grew. She never liked blackboard erasers after that. (15.13)

    When you grow up, there are some major bummers. One such bummer is when you are expecting something cool—let’s say a real close look at a real school eraser—but instead you get spat upon. Okay, well, maybe we don’t all experience this exact same thing, but Shmoop is fairly confident something similar happened to you. Can you think of a time when you were totally spat upon in some way when you had high expectations that something cool was going to happen?

    He was talking more quietly now asking the nurse how that kind of people could survive; that it would be a better world if they were all sterilized and couldn’t breed anymore. Did that mean he wanted her to die? Would he do something to make her die because her hands and arms were dirty from the mud pies? She looked to the nurse. To Francie, all women were mamas, like her own mother and Aunt Sissy and Aunt Evy. (18.19)

    The doctor talks about Francie like she is much too stupid to understand what he is saying. Francie looks to the nurse for some comfort but finds none; she feels ashamed, alone, and scared. It stinks when you first find out that there are people who will hate you for things out of your control.

    “My brother is next. His arm is just as dirty as mine so don’t be surprised. And you don’t have to tell him. You told me.” (18.24)

    Coming of age implies that this is a story about Francie figuring out who she is, and how she develops her identity and her values. To the doctor and nurse’s surprise, she stands right up for herself and tries to protect her brother from experiencing what she just went through. She is protective of her brother and is willing to speak her mind.

    She had been in school but half a day when she knew that she would never be a teacher’s pet. That privilege was reserved for a small group of girls… girls with freshly curled hair, crisp clean pinafores and new silk hair bows. (19.3)

    In case the doctor’s visit wasn’t enough, now Francie definitely knows that social class plays a big part in how you are treated in the world. She is well aware of this injustice and how challenging things will be for her because of it.

    On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived. (22.3)

    She is a reader, through and through. Reading and education are very important—not just to the people around her, but also to herself.

    Francie was ten years old when she first found an outlet in writing. What she wrote was of little consequence. What was important was that the attempt to write stories kept her straight on the dividing line between truth and fiction. If she had not found this outlet in writing, she might have grown up to be a tremendous liar. (26.34-35)

    Francie is a tall-tale-teller, a fibber… oh, okay… let’s just say it: Our girl likes to lie. She loves a good story and if real life doesn’t provide enough excitement, she will embellish the truth to her liking. The fact that she realizes she has a good imagination and can channel it into writing really helps her figure out who she is, in addition to helping her become more trustworthy.

    “As long as I live, I will never have a woman for a friend. I will never trust any woman again, except maybe Mama and sometimes Aunt Evy and Sissy.” (30.70)

    Francie writes these words in her diary after the incident with Joanna. She is ashamed of herself for not smiling at Joanna and is furious with the other women in the neighborhood to attacked Joanna and her innocent baby. She’s had it with women.

    “Don’t be mad at me, Mama, because I fought you. You, yourself, taught me to fight for what I thought was right and I . . .I thought I was right.”

    “I know. And I’m pleased that you can and will fight for what you should have. And you’ll always come out all right—no matter what. You’re like me that way.” (44.131-132)

    Something that happens to many people as they grow up is that they realize (gasp) that they are just like their parents in many ways. Yes, it will happen to you, too. Mark Shmoop’s words.

    “It’s a beautiful religion,” she mused, “and I wish I understood it more. No. I don’t want to understand it at all. It’s beautiful because it’s always a mystery, like God himself is a mystery. Sometimes I day I don’t believe in God. But I only say that when I am mad at Him. . .Because I do! I do! I believe in God and Jesus and Mary. I’m a bad Catholic because I miss mass once in a while and I grumble when, at confession, I get a heavy penance for something I couldn’t help doing. But good or bad, I am a Catholic and I’ll never be anything else. (45.132)

    Francie's relationship to God and religion has changed from the beginning of the book. As she gets older, we hear her sometimes doubt the existence of God, especially when Papa dies, but as the novel starts winding down, she feels pretty comfy as a Catholic.

  • Visions of America

    She and her brother, Neeley, like other Brooklyn kids, collected rags, paper, metal, rubber, and other junk and hoarded it in locked cellar bins or in boxes under the bed […]

    On the way to Carney’s, they met other kids coming back empty-handed. They had sold their junk and already squandered their pennies. Now, swaggering back, they jeered at the other kids.

    “Rag picker! Rag picker!” (1.9-13)

    Who doesn’t love some spending money, right? Well, these kids are no different. Think of this like cashing in bottles and cans like many people do today. It’s the same idea—they just collected a lot more than bottles and cans back then (and got a whole lot less money for them, too). Also, isn’t it kind of strange how mean we can be to people who are just like us? For real—the kids who pick on them for being “rag pickers” are “rag pickers” themselves. What is up with that? Is that something that only happened in the past or are people still mean to those who are just like them sometimes?

    “Before I joined the Union the bosses paid me what they felt like. Sometimes they paid me nothing. The tips, they said, would take care of me. Some places even charged me for the privilege of working. The tips were so big, they said, that they could sell the waiting concession. Then I joined the Union. Your mother shouldn’t begrudge the dues. The Union gets me jobs where the boss has to pay me certain wages, regardless of tips. All trades should be unionized.” (3.21)

    Labor unions helped improve the life of many workers during this time period.

    Losher’s redeemed the stale bread from the dealers and sold it at half price to the poor […] There was never enough bread and some waited until three or four wagons had reported before they could buy bread. (1.57)

    The crowds jammed into this little place just for the chance to buy stale bread or risk going hungry. The poverty that these people dealt with is very real.

    “I know that kid. He’s a white Jew.” Neeley had heard papa speak so of a Jewish bartender that he liked.

    “They ain’t no such thing as a white Jew,” said Neeley said the big boy.

    “Well, if there was such a thing as a white jew, said Neeley with that combination of agreeing with others and still sticking to his own opinions, which made him so amiable, “he would be it.”

    “There never could be a white Jew even in supposing.” (1.90-93)

    Racism is particularly nasty when you hear it coming from young kids. They pick up what their parents believe and don’t even know what they are saying. It is one of the ugliest things of the time… do you think it's improved since then?

    Francie liked the organ grinder better. Every once in a while a man came around lugging a small organ with a monkey perched atop it. They monkey wore a red jacket with gold braid and a red pillbox hat strapped under his chin. His red pants had a convenient hole in them so that his tail could stick out. Francie loved that monkey. She’d give him her precious penny-for-candy just for the happiness of seeing min tip his hat to her. (13.52)

    Street musicians were common sight in Brooklyn during this time. Sadly, the organ grinder monkey is something that you don’t see very much anymore.

    Following the kitchen, there were two bedrooms, one leading into the other. An airshaft dimensioned like a coffin was built into the bedrooms. The windows were small and dingy gray. You could open an airshaft window, maybe, if you used a chisel and hammer. But when you did, you were rewarded with a blast of cold dank air […] This arrangement supposedly supplied light and air to the bedroom. But the heavy glass, iron fencing and dirt of many years refused to filter light through […]

    There were vile things cluttering up the bottom. Since this bottom couldn’t be reached by man (the windows being too small to admit the passage of a body), it served as a fearful repository for things that people wanted to put out of their lives. Rusted razor blades and bloody cloths were the most innocent items.” (15.16-17)

    The airshaft is a way that the builders got around the building codes that required all rooms to have a window in them. It is an example of the horrible conditions the poor of time endured, and an invitation to consider ways in which the poor get treated, well, more poorly than wealthier people.

    “The neighborhood stores are an important part of a city child’s life. They are his contact with the supplies that keep life going; they hold the beauty that his soul longs for; they hold the unattainable that he can only dream and wish for.” (16.1)

    The things they look at (and from time to time buy) in the neighborhood stores shows us a lot about the culture of the time. For example, one thing we learn about their time in a store is a little about some crazy fashion trend called spats that stylish men wore to cover their boots.

    Three thousand children crowded into this ugly brutalizing school that had facilities for only one thousand. (19.7)

    Is overcrowding a problem in your school? Is it fair that some neighborhoods have better schools than others? How can we fix this problem?

    “Yes, but they give us each a time so that the voting is staggered. . .you know, not everyone coming in a bunch.”

    “Why?” persisted Francie.

    “‘Cause,” Johnny evaded.

    “I’ll tell you why," broke in Mama. “They want to keep tabs on who’s voting and how. They know when each man’s due at the polls and Got help him if he doesn’t show up to vote for Mattie.” (24.106-109)

    Corruption in the political system is not a new thing. In fact, it seems like it was worse before.

    Most children brought up in Brooklyn before the First World War remember Thanksgiving Day there with a peculiar tenderness. It was the day the children went around “ragamuffin” or “slamming gates,” wearing costumes topped off by a penny mask. (26. 1)

    Our country’s traditions on holidays have really changed since this time. This seems like it is more like our Halloween, doesn’t it?

    “If I did that, all the other would expect to get ‘em handed to ‘em. An next year nobody a’tall would buy a tree off of me. They’d all wait to get ‘em handed to ‘em on a silver plate […] “I gotta think of myself and my own kids.” He finally came to his conclusion. “Oh, what the hell! Them two kids is gotta live in this world. They got to get used to it. They got to learn to give and to take punishment. And by Jesus, it ain’t give but take, take, take all the time in this God-damned world.” As he threw the tree with all his strength, his heart wailed out, “It’s a God-damned, rotten, lousy world!” (27.20)

    The poverty of the time was pretty heartbreaking. It forced most people to be concerned only about ensuring that their families were fed, even when they knew it was a nasty way to be.

    She watched him work over her baby. She saw a miracle that transcended the miracles of the saints her mother had told her about. She saw the dead blue change to living white. She saw an apparently lifeless child draw a breath. For the first time she heard the cry of a child she had borne. (50.17)

    Thanks to modern technology and having babies in hospitals, so many more children have a chance at life.

    She looked out over Brooklyn. The starlight half revealed, half concealed. She looked out over the flat roofs, uneven in height, broken once in a while by a slanting roof from a house left over from older times. The chimney pots on the roofs. . .and on some, the shadowing looming of pigeon cotes. . .sometimes, faintly heard, the sleepy cooing of pigeons. . .the twin spires of the Church, remotely brooding over the dark tenements. . .And at the end of their street, the great Bridge that threw itself like a sigh across the East River and was lost. . .lost. . .on the other shore. The dark East River beneath the Bridge, and far away, the misty-gray skyline of New York, looking like a city cut from cardboard.

    “There’s no other place like it,” Francie said. (46.94-95)

    Can’t you just see this? The rooftops of turn-of-the-century Brooklyn, the bridge, the far away skyline of Manhattan… You can even hear it. Very cool.