In the early 20th century Brooklyn New York, Francie Nolan is growing up. Brooklyn is a wild place- a place where children brawl in the streets and in the schoolyard. Francie would rather read on the fire escape than try to relate to her peers. She doesn't understand their rough ways. She is thoughtful and sensitive, more like her musical father than her practical mother.
Katie Rommely swore she would give up everything just to have handsome Johnny Nolan. She spends most of her life paying for that pledge. She scrubs apartment floors to keep a roof over her family's heads while Johnny occasionally makes money as a singing waiter when he's not drunk. Even though he's unreliable, the children have more affection for fun-loving Johnny than their stern mother. Katie makes nearly everything a hard learned lesson for the Francie and Nealy. She pins all her hopes for a better life on Nealy and knows she loves him more. Still, Katie is determined to have both her children educated.
Francie is by far the better student of the Nolan children. She loves school and thrives there. At times, it seems that getting an education is a dream as the family suffers tragedies over the years.
When I first started reading A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, I was a bit confused as to what it was- a memoir? a series of anecdotes? The writing, while very good, is a bit distancing since I felt like I was just watching the Nolan's rather than being part of them. It starts with Francie at the age of eleven then after a few pages flips back in time to her parents' early married life before bringing us back to Francie's childhood again. By the time it ended, I understood what it was about. Basically, it's about the American Dream. Francie grows up poor and her mother struggles to keep them alive while educating the children so that will not have to struggle the way she did.
Francie grows from a shy and awkward child to a confident young woman. It's not an easy journey. Francie experiences much ugliness in her life, but strangely some of the simplest things are beautiful to Francie. Francie is a very lonely child. It doesn't help that the Nolan family never really fits in anywhere. Katie's expectations set them apart from the people who except their poverty. Katie fights it every step of the way. While Johnny is weighed down by it.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is somewhat an autobiography of Betty Smith's life. Some of Francie's experiences were her own. The book ends on a happy note, although I thought some of the things that happened were to be too good to be true. She implies that no matter how bleak things may seem there is a chance that circumstances can change, either through luck or hard work. Like the Tree of Heaven of the title, the hardy can survive anywhere.