Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Family

By Betty Smith

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.

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