Places: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1943

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Bildungsroman

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Brooklyn

*Brooklyn. Tree Grows in Brooklyn, ABorough of New York City that in the early twentieth century was filled with immigrant and second-generation Irish, Poles, Jews, and Italians. In this story, Brooklyn comprises neighborhoods of more than one social level, though poor, working people predominate. There are shabby tenements with residents whose lives are spent in sweatshops and other low-paying jobs. There are old houses owned by artisans, craftsmen, and storekeepers, many of whom are second-and third-generation Americans. Most of the schools are overcrowded and dismal, although Francie finds one that is not. There are stores of all kinds–bakeries, groceries, pawnshops, Chinese laundries, spice shops–places where an imaginative child can experience some of the wonders of a world different from her own. The daily life of the inhabitants of this diverse district offers a panorama of the likely, the improbable, and the possible, an education for the receptive heart and mind of a curious child like Francie.

Nolan flat

Nolan flat. Four so-called railroad rooms (one leading into the next) on the third floor of a tenement in Williamsburg. The family must share a bath down the hallway with two other families. This is the third home Katie and Johnny Nolan have had in their seven-year marriage, and it includes a tree growing near the fire escape. The tree provides a leafy bower for Francie during the summer Saturdays as she sits with her books and peppermint candies, reading and watching the tenants in the nearby buildings go about their evening routines.

Aside from the tree, which is Francie’s private sanctuary, the flat also has a piano, left over from the previous tenant. Thus music lessons become an enrichment of Francie and her brother Neeley’s lives. There are other redeeming qualities to this flat on Grand Street, and the Nolans make it a good home for many years. Francie’s father accurately predicts that it will be his last home; he dies while still in his thirties and before the birth of his second daughter Laurie.

Francie’s schools

Francie’s schools. There are two elementary schools that Francie attends. The first is a dismal, ugly place built to accommodate one thousand pupils but actually crowded with three thousand. The pupils, first-and second-generation children of immigrants, are brutalized by one another and by their teachers. Corporal punishment, while against the law, is practiced freely and with impunity. Disease and head lice are rampant. Still, this is Francie’s first school, and it is here she learns to read and write. She also learns a hard fact of life: that some of the fortunate ones will be favored by teachers and become their “pets,” while some unfortunate ones will not. Francie is destined to be one of the unfortunate ones as long as she attends this school.

The second school she attends, in a different district, is vastly different from the first one in its nurturing atmosphere. The teachers are more agreeable, the number of students is small enough to allow each pupil some individuality, and the building itself has a much more welcoming ambience. Discovered by Francie on one of her Saturday walks, she asks her father to find a way for her to transfer to the school. Though it means walking forty-eight blocks each day (twelve blocks each way four times a day), Francie feels fortunate to be able to attend the school, and she thrives there.

McGarrity’s saloon

McGarrity’s saloon. Establishment in which Johnny Nolan spends time drinking and where, after his death, his son Neeley works. Looked upon by many of its patrons’ wives as a place of disrepute and dereliction, the saloon becomes for Katie Nolan and her children a deliverance when the owner McGarrity provides employment for the children and a needed source of income after Johnny’s death.

BibliographyGelfant, Blanche H. “Sister to Faust: The City’s ‘Hungry’ Woman as Heroine.” In Women Writers and the City: Essays in Feminist Literary Criticism, edited by Susan Merrill Squier. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984. Examines the common attributes of female protagonists such as Francie Nolan, whose physical hunger parallels her longing for knowledge and self awareness.Ginsberg, Elaine K. “Betty Wehner Smith.” In American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. Edited by Lina Mainiero. 4 vols. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982. Gives facts about Smith’s professional career and her works, including a brief assessment of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.Pearlman, Mickey. “Betty Smith.” In Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Catholic Writing, edited by Daniel J. Tynan. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1989. Discusses the biographical elements of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and includes background information regarding Smith’s similarity to the protagonist Francie Nolan.Prescott, Orville. “Outstanding Novels.” The Yale Review 33, no. 1 (Autumn, 1943): 6-12. Provides an assessment of Smith’s character development within the novel and examines the elements of local color or regionalism in the work.Sullivan, Richard. “Brooklyn, Where the Tree Grew.” The New York Times Book Review, August 22, 1948, 1. A comparison of the common elements in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Smith’s later work. Focuses on related themes, settings and characters, emphasizing the superiority of the first novel.
Categories: Places