A Tree Still Grows

More than 70 years ago, Betty Smith wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  The novel follows the life of Francie Nolan as she grows up in a poor immigrant family during the early 1900s.  Published in 1943, it particularly spotlights the struggles and strengths of women, from ostracizing unmarried pregnancy, to women's musings about future voting rights.

Both the men and women of the novel have moral shortcomings, but the author depicts them as utterly human with beautiful aspirations.  Brooklyn itself is also a character.  The reader sees it through the eyes of young Francie, a place filled with wonderful diversity of people, cultures, sights, and smells.  In this setting, Betty Smith truly expressed the raw emotions and struggles of life.  Perhaps that is why the events in the novel seem timeless and still resonate today.  For example:

School Choice  

More than one character realizes the importance of free education to reach the American dream.  Francie, too young at first to understand, is still an inquisitive little girl.  All she wants is the opportunity to enter elementary school.  But when she finally gets to start, disillusionment shatters her.  Large masses of children are herded into overcrowded classrooms where bullying is common.  Most teachers are overwhelmed, underqualified, and uninterested.  At one point, Francie even wets her pants in shame because so many children went to the bathroom ahead of her.  All in all, every day is ‘brutalizing.’  One day, while walking in a more middle-class neighborhood, Francie sees a red brick schoolhouse.  It’s the one of her dreams.  She quietly tells her father, Johnny.  He spots a nice-looking house near the school and uses the address to request a transfer.  The ploy works.  Francie ends up in a better class more suited for her.  Readers can never forget that Johnny had to lie about their residence to escape a failed school.

Second Amendment Rights

When Francie turns fourteen, every parent is fearful of a child molester on the loose.  Fears are heightened when he murders a seven-year-old girl.  Johnny borrows a gun from a security guard in order to protect the family.  Not long after, the molester hides in the shadows of their apartment building stairway.  When Francie comes home from school, her mother comes down to meet her. She sees the man grabbing Francie.  At that instant, she rushes upstairs, takes the gun, and returns to fatally shoot him.  Although police are depicted as hard-working and sympathetic, it is clear that the outcome would have been different for the Nolan family without self-defense.

Substance Abuse 

Francie’s father, Johnny, is an alcoholic.  He works, when he is sober.  He is gentle toward everyone and his songs enthrall little Francie’s heart.  It is simple.  He is her father, she is his ‘prima donna’ and they love each other.  But Johnny cannot escape his disease.  One freezing winter night, he drinks himself unconscious.  His body is found on the street the next day.  Francie is shocked and numb.  When she graduates from elementary school, all the children have flowers on their desks. Francie is not expecting anything as Johnny is gone and her mother barely makes ends meet.  But to her surprise, a bouquet of flowers is waiting on her desk.  A note attached reads that it is from Johnny.  He had paid for them two years before.  Tears flow down Francie’s cheeks as she holds the flowers.  She finally begins a grieving process.  The heartbreaking moment brings closure to a character, but readers are also shown that this tragedy is not something new.  Today it is both alcohol and opioids.  Either way, it must be overcome for families everywhere.

Identity Politics

One day in school, the teacher asks students about their backgrounds.  Responses were ‘Polish-American,’ ‘Irish-American,’ or something similar as all the parents were immigrants and none had been born on American soil.  Smith writes:

When Nolan was called, Francie answered proudly: “I’m an American.”

“I know you’re American,” said the easily exasperated teacher.  “But what’s your nationality?”

“American!” insisted Francie even more proudly.

“Will you tell me what your parents are or do I have to send you to the principal?”

“My parents are American.  They were born in Brooklyn.”

The teacher relents in agreement and Francie is overjoyed as classmates look at her in admiration.  The Nolans never forget their roots.  But they also take pride in the simple label ‘American.’

A tree, which the book is named after, grows in front of Francie’s building.  It grows up through cement amidst poverty.  It is a symbol of resolute determination and strong grit.  Near the close of the novel, Francie looks down into the yard toward the tree.  Smith writes:

The landlord had sent two men and they had chopped it down.  But the tree hadn’t died… it hadn’t died.  A new tree had grown from the stump and its trunk had grown along the ground unit it reached a place where there were no wash lines above it.  Then it had started to grow towards the sky again.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is quintessentially American.  As students are kept away from schools and unrest rocks our streets, there is no better time than now to read it.

Dr. Guy Redmer is an author of educational materials and political commentary. He is a professor of English and currently teaching in Taipei.

Image: HarperCollins