Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Visions of America

By Betty Smith

Visions of America

There are so many cool details about life in the early 1900s that you learn about when you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—Shmoop thinks learning history when you aren’t even trying to is a totally excellent way to learn, too. The details about how the Nolans shopped around for the best price on a soup bone and waited in line for hours for the chance to buy stale bread for the week help us imagine what it was like in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the early 1900s. The living conditions in the tenements are eye opening. Can you imagine sharing one bathroom with several other families? We get to learn what it felt like to experience progress, early twentieth century style. It is pretty darn magical moment when medical progress allows Sissy’s eleventh child a chance to live. The scenes of day-to-day life in the stores, the games they play for fun, the street musicians, and so many other little details help us really feel like we are there walking the neighborhood with our pal, Francie. We get a really vivid picture of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn during the early 1900s—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Questions About Visions of America

  1. What do we learn about the time period when Francie (who is older) just hands her money over to her brother for him to divide up?
  2. What are some things we learn about life in Brooklyn in the early 1900s by the way some minorities are treated? Consider the characters’s interactions and discussions with or about Jewish people and the Asian man at the Laundromat.
  3. Consider the type of transportation that the characters use. What would the streets sound like back then? Would it be much different than today?
  4. What does Francie’s mother think of the girls who are bobbing their hair? Why is this a big deal to her?

Chew on This

More than anything else, this is a story about a specific place and time. The story about Francie is secondary.

The setting is so present in this novel that you could possibly consider it to be a character in the novel.