Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Visions of America

By Betty Smith

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.