Francie Nolan’s family is dirt poor, moving from tenement to tenement in early twentieth century Brooklyn. Her father Johnny, an Irish catholic, earns a haphazard living as a ‘singing waiter’ until his sudden death at a young age casts the family into even greater chaos. Her mother, Katie struggles to keep the family afloat through working as a janitor and cleaner. There is a younger brother, Neeley. Soon, a third child will be born.
While still young, Francie discovers reading. She joins the library and works her way through the books starting with A. One of her favourite occupations is to sit on the fire escape for their tenement (shaded by the tree of the title) reading for hours.
“The feeling she had about it [the library] was as good as the feeling she had about Church. She liked the combined smell of worn leather bindings, library paste and freshly-inked stamping pads better than she liked the smell of burning incense”
As children she and her brother Neeley scrounge in gutters and on rubbish heaps for any sort of scrap which might have a value. They are paid a few cents for these by local scrap dealers.
“Rags brought two cents a pound, iron four.”
Francie does well at school and is desperate to continue her education, but the birth of her younger sister means that their mother can only afford to educate one of her two older children. Francie is therefore forced to become the family’s main breadwinner at the age of 14, as her brother’s education is prioritised by their mother. What she achieves and how she achieves it is the subject of the book.
The writing of this work is very atmospheric; it was autobiographical and therefore written by someone who had walked the walk. Francie is an appealing character if sometimes she sounds a little grown up for her chronological age. However for some reason I found myself liking the book less on this second reading.
I did notice this time around that the author gets sidetracked by stories of the minor characters – such as Francie’s aunts and uncles. I skipped a lot of this the second time around, but got the gist that their behaviour was looked down upon in a highly judgemental community, thereby making things worse for Francie.
I also found that I lost patience with some of the philosophising dressed as dialogue and pointed comments about Jewish shopkeepers.
My discontent was not helped by amazon sending me a rubbish copy to my kindle – some kind of unedited proof, full of mistakes! Thanks for nothing amazon.
Wiki tells me that Betty Smith was born Elizabeth Lillian Wehner (1896 – 1972) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She wrote four novels, her first, the largely autobiographical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was published in 1943. In 1944 20th Century Fox adapted the novel into a film directed by Elia Kazan.