An older work, though quite a popular one still in our store, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn offers a satisfying experience even to a reader of twenty-first century sensibilities. While many of the details in Betty Smith’s tale are of course outdated, it is a mistake to dismiss it somehow as merely quaint. The world it describes so vividly may have disappeared, but the themes it grapples with and the struggles it relates are universal–can be seen as independent of time and place.
Written in the nineteen-forties, but depicting events taking place from about 1900 to 1918, the book stands as an utterly convincing portrayal of poor immigrant life–tenement life–in New York City’s most populous borough during that earlier period. In particular it is the story of the Nolans, a loving if often desperately strapped family, the parents first-generation Americans of Irish and German origin, respectively. The main protagonist is Francie, the oldest of the Nolan children through whom the story is mostly told and whose coming of age is the book’s primary subject. She is precocious and fiercely ambitious, and her model is pretty clearly Smith herself.
The story involves a number of different immigrant communities coexisting side by side in the Brooklyn of the period, and the author shows no compunction about indulging in ethnic stereotypes. The Irish are sentimental but shiftless. Laborers in most cases, they can be bar-owners. Germans are cold and unyielding. They are butchers and delicatessen-owners. Italians appear in the story as organ-grinders and street entertainers, and sometimes are the butt of jokes. Jews are shopkeepers, and they are calculating. In a cringe-producing reference, the Nolans for special occasions always buy “Jew bread”–i.e., rye bread. Blacks do not appear at all.
Yet there is little malice in the stereotypes. What comes through instead is the commonality of the various groups, all of them underdogs. Life is stacked against everyone in the Nolans’ world, there’s no getting around the fact. At the same time, however, and Smith seems eager to offer this up as a countervailing fact, it is America and there is the certainty (not just the possibility) that any group (any white group, I suppose I should stipulate) will improve its socio-economic lot in the course of a mere generation or two.
By the end of the book, when Francie is just eighteen (and going away to college!), it has become clear that she is indeed moving up in the world. I think also it is a safe bet that she will one day, like her creator, be a writer. The experiences of her childhood which we as readers have been immersed in for three hundred-some pages would then become material for the stories she would write: the hardships, the small moments of joy, and most especially the indelible characters.
The list would start with her father, Johnny Nolan. He is handsome, charming, feckless, a bit of a rogue, and Francie loves him completely. He has the Irishman’s gift of gab and a sweet singing voice. In fact, he makes his living, such as it is, as a singing waiter. Because of his fondness for drink, however, he misses out on a lot of jobs. Eventually his unreliability costs him his place in the waiters’ union. Johnny is one of four boys, and the only one to make it to thirty-five years of age (which he does just barely).
Francie’s mother is made of sterner stuff. Katie Nolan (nee Rommely) was married at seventeen and a mother at eighteen, and her life has been defined by hard work and sacrifice. Still a young woman when the story takes place, she hasn’t lost her looks, except that her hands show the accumulated damage from years of scrubbing floors for a living. She has a fierce pride in her self-sufficiency and refuses charity, even when it is offered by a family member. Although she loves Francie, Katie often knocks heads with her, the daughter being too much like the mother, and Francie’s younger brother Neeley is her favorite. Francie knows this and accepts it. She loves her brother too, who is a sweet boy with a gift for music like his father.
Of the various aunts and uncles, Aunt Sissy stands out. The eldest of Katie’s three sisters, she never learned to read and write because when her parents came to this country from Austria they didn’t know there was such a thing as free public education. Some think Sissy bad because she has a habit of marrying serial husbands (each of whom she calls “John” regardless of their actual names) without the formality of divorce. But she is also good, the Nolans would say, because she is big-hearted and life-affirming. She suffers a total of ten miscarriages with the various Johns. While with the last one (whose real name is Steve), she arranges to surreptitiously adopt a baby from a young pregnant girl and raise it as her own. For months, although she never shows any signs, she pretends to be pregnant herself. Then after going away for a couple of days, she appears baby in hand, claiming to have borne it in the interval. Everyone is stunned into accepting, in fact half believing, her story.
There is a beat cop and Tammany Hall functionary named McShane who has always looked after the Nolans, helping them out discretely when he could. Eventually (this is near the end of the novel) he turns his attentions, and intentions, toward Katie specifically and will become the means by which the family escapes poverty for good. Francie has a beau of her own at this point, although she is not convinced they have a future together because she worries that he is a little too sure of himself.
It is Francie who is the most compelling character of all. While hailing from the humblest of backgrounds, she is inquisitive and resourceful even as a young girl. She is keen to learn about the neighborhood, about people, about books. Accompanied in this as in other schemes by Neeley, she gathers scrap metal to sell to the junkman for a few pennies that she then gives to her mother. When she is fourteen or fifteen she poses as eighteen in order to get a good-paying office job in Manhattan, becoming then the main breadwinner in the family for several years. By the final chapters we see her, the beneficiary of not only her own hard work but the assistance of others including Ben, the beau, having gained a hard-earned worldliness. Humble is not a word that occurs to us now as we read about developments in Francie’s life. She may not be as sure of herself as Ben, but she is confident in the future course of her life. Words like indomitable and resilient do come to mind, for she is like that tree that some call the Tree of Heaven, the one that literally grows out of concrete and is all but indestructible.
As many have noted over the years, Betty Smith has captured here the sense of real life being lived, in a novel rich in the elements of universal experience. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn remains relevant because within the compass of its characters is all of humanity. 4/5 stars.