March 11, 2005


A classic hope-against-the-odds story
by Meredith Hines-Dochterman

Sitting on a rusted fire escape on a sunny afternoon, a library book in her lap and a chipped blue bowl filled with peppermint wafers at her feet, is what 11-year-old Francie Nolan enjoys most.

A poor girl growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the 1900s, Francie finds joy in life’s little pleasures — visiting the neighborhood library, Mass on Sunday mornings, listening to her father sing and dining on Jewish rye bread once a week. But as Francie grows older, life’s pleasures are fewer. Her beloved father drinks too much, her mother loves her younger brother more, and the world isn’t kind to a young girl struggling to find a piece of happiness.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (Harper Collins, 1st Perennial edition, 1998, 496p) is a timeless coming-of-age story about the working poor. Focusing on young Francie, author Betty Smith introduces readers to a slight girl unaware o f her inner strength. Through Francie, the reader lives the life of those that struggle to find work and feed their children, yet still have time to dream.

With empathy and a flair for description, Smith introduces Francie on a warm summer day in 1912. Francie, accompanied by her 10-year-old brother Neeley, is making the weekly visit to the neighborhood junk collector. It is a ritual performed by all of Brooklyn’s poor children, where the rags, paper, metal, rubber and other junk collected all week can be exchanged for a few pennies.

In the Nolan family, half of the money the children’s treasures earn is deposited in the family’s tin can bank, which is nailed to the floor in the darkest corner of the closet. The remaining coins are split evenly between the pair. This is money the children can spend however they wish, a privilege that makes Francie feel, for just a moment, like one of the privileged rich.

Life is never easy for Francie, but at times it is simple. The eldest child of Johnny and Katie Nolan, she is the apple of her father’s eye — a personable man with looks and talent but a weakness for alcohol. His ideas are greater than his ambition. His dreams stronger than his reality. He is never able to hold down a job even if it means his children go to sleep hungry. Yet, despite his shortcomings, Francie worships her father.

Francie struggles to have the same love for Katie. She knows her mother is the family’s backbone, a pretty woman who works as a janitress all day, taking on extra chores to buy food. But just like the greatest of Francie’s love is reserved for her father, all of Katie’s affections are showered on Neeley. Katie is determined her son will grow to be everything his father is not.

Smith’s language is a window into the Nolan family. Through her words, the reader watches young Johnny and Katie fall in love, knowing that the life they live will take its toll on those emotions. The reader roots for young Francie as she struggles to learn, not letting her disappointment on her first day of school deter her from learning.

"She thought she’d come home knowing how to read and write. But all she got was a bloody nose gained by an older child slamming her head down on the stone rim of the water trough when she tried to drink from the faucets."

The reader travels with Francie as she grows from child to teenager, struggling to come to terms with herself and her feelings about the world around her. Through her, the reader sees how society views the poor, and feels shame for the actions of the genteel people Francie encounters. With Francie, the reader learns, loves, grieves and grows. Like the tree that stands proudly in the front yard of Francie’s home, the Nolans thrive when they shouldn’t and triumph when all of life’s elements are against them.

First published in 1943, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a young adult novel that appeals to adults because of its honesty. For youngsters, the story will catapult them to a different world where imagination is all children need to be happy. Likewise, adults who read Francie’s story will recognize similarities between her childhood and theirs; they will applaud her survival the same way they cheered for themselves when they were younger.

Meredith Hines-Dochterman can be contacted at


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