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Book Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
By: Sowmya Nath


Book Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
 
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a coming of age story set in the first two decades of the 20th century in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Written by Betty Smith (and published in 1943), the novel captures the sights, sounds, struggles and successes of little Francie Nolan and her family.
 
Some critics say that nothing really happens throughout the book, and sure enough, the book is not written as a series of dramatic events unfolding one after the other. The book is full of routine, day-to-day happenings such as 13-year-old Francie joining forces with her father to attend a better school in a swankier neighborhood, the Nolans skimping at the dinner table or little Francie ironing her father’s clothes before he heads off to his night job as a singing waiter. The story progresses through these seemingly trivial and mundane events, but they show the harsh reality and the circumstances that mould the quiet, shy and studious Francie and give readers an insight into her life and struggle out of poverty.
 
 

The Nolans’ life and severe circumstances are laid bare by the imagery and the tone of the book. The neighborhood where the family lives is poor. The father, although a good man and a loving father, barely figures in Francie’s life as he juggles several odd jobs and a drinking habit. The mother is a prominent figure in the little girl’s life, who steadily provides for the family working as a janitress and later trying to make ends meet cleaning houses. Despite as splattering of critical events in her life, like her father’s death of acute alcoholism, the subsequent birth of her sister and her mother’s remarriage to an upstanding police officer and statesman, the story progresses slowly, allowing the reader to take in every detail of Williamsburg just as Francie did. We get an insight into her parents’ backgrounds—her Irish father who was meant to be a comfort to his mother, and her mother’s Austrian family and their daughters’ marriages which are seen as disappointments by her parents. We meet all the characters who come into Francie’s life—the strong-willed and wise grandmother, Aunt Evy, and the promiscuous Aunty Sissy.
 
The book, through Francie’s eyes, also gives us a glimpse into the Williamsburg district with its heavy immigrant population—their lives, their jobs and their interactions with one another and their biases against others of different backgrounds, despite all of them living in the same impoverished condition.
 
However, the overall tone of the book is one of hope and optimism. Smith creates beautiful memories throughout the book, such as newly-weds Johnny and Katie Nolan playing and making love in the empty school where they work late at night, a little girls’ joy when she buys candy with the pennies she gets from selling rags, and Francie and her brother Neely’s outing with their father. The readers fall in love with the Nolans despite all their faults. This is what keeps the readers turning page after page until they see the younger Nolans—particularly Francie—leave Williamsburg and their hardships behind and finally make good.
 

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Book Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
By: Sowmya Nath
   
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