Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Chapter 33

By Betty Smith

Chapter 33

  • The teens in Williamsburg are very curious about sex, but no one really talks about it, though. People keep it all on the down low.
  • Uneducated parents often don’t even know the correct words to explain sex and the sex organs to their children, so they don’t say anything to them, leaving the kids to their own devices to figure it all out.
  • One day Francie and Neeley ask Mama where they came from, and Mama tells them from God, but that isn’t enough for them. They want to know how God got them to Mama and they want to know the difference between boys and girls. Mama tells them that the main difference is boys stand when they go to the bathroom and girls sit, which leads to more confusion since sometimes Neeley sits and sometimes Francie stands.
  • As Francie ventures deeper into puberty, Mama tries to be as honest as she can be with her limited knowledge, which spares Francie from having to hear these things whispered and distorted by peers. Sex is still pretty mysterious to her, though. What isn’t mysterious, however, is the fear of sexual predators. They are all too common and scary.
  • There is a predator in the neighborhood when Francie is fourteen. Some scum has been molesting little girls, and one little girl on their block has even been murdered.
  • Needless to say, there is great fear among everyone in the neighborhood. No one plays in the street anymore, and mothers anxiously wait for their children to return from school.
  • Johnny is so freaked about it that he gets a gun, which he keeps under his pillow.
  • Time passes without any more incidents, so people’s fears slowly start to ease up a bit. And that is exactly when the predator strikes again.
  • One day, Katie is upstairs as Francie arrives home from school. She enters the building and gets to the bottom of the stairs when she first sees him. He approaches her with his pants all undone and genitals exposed. Horrified and unable to scream or run, she is paralyzed in her fear.
  • Mama comes out of the flat and sees what is going on, and she runs for the gun and shoots him in the stomach.
  • Francie is not hurt by him, with one big exception: She is totally disgusted because his penis touched her leg.
  • In fact, she wants to cut her leg off, which she repeats over and over again.
  • Neeley hears the talk on the street that Francie has been attacked by the pervert. He runs to the house and pounds on the door until they let him in. When they tell him what has happened, he runs to find Papa, who is drinking at McGarrity’s saloon. (No surprises there, folks.) They both come rushing home.
  • When Papa comes in, he picks Francie up and rocks her like a baby. Francie keeps saying that she wants her leg cut off.
  • Mama explains why she is saying this, and Johnny goes to work. He finds some carbolic acid and puts it on her leg. It burns her skin, but she welcomes the burn. It feels like the man’s touch is being burned off her.
  • At this point, the policeman pounds on the door and enters with a doctor, who gives Francie an exam.
  • When questioned about the gun, Johnny tells him an unlikely story about how he found the gun in the gutter, and he doesn’t have a permit.
  • Katie is disappointed to find out that she didn’t kill the man, but the good news is that he confessed to everything—even the murder of the little girl.
  • The scar on Francie's leg never goes away completely, but it shrinks up quite a bit.
  • Johnny is fined five dollars for having a gun without a permit.
  • Sergeant McShane comes over to see Katie soon after the incident. His wife is in a hospital now, and Katie wonders if he will ever get married again when his wife dies. He hands her an envelope full of money as a reward for helping the police catch the guy.
  • In true Katie form, however, she refuses it. McShane doesn’t press the issue too much and puts the envelope back in his pocket.
  • She’s so beautiful and full of pride, he muses. When they are both free one day, he will marry her.