A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn cover

I feel that I might be close to being one of the last females in the western world to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. The blurb on the front of the book says: Poignant, moving, triumphant – in the bestselling tradition of Angela’s Ashes. I find that really bizarre as this book was first published in 1943 and Angela’s Ashes was published in 1996 and is so much more depressing and frankly distressing than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

The setting is the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn where the Nolan family is living a hand to mouth existence, being held back by the alcoholic father who is ruled by his need for alcohol but otherwise is a decent father and husband, greatly loved by his family despite his weakness. The book begins in 1912. Katie and Johnny are a young married couple. Katie married Johnny mainly because he had been her friend’s boyfriend and she liked knowing that her friend had still wanted him, she liked winning him but it wasn’t long before Katie realised that she had taken on a big problem and she realised that she would have to find work with a home as part of the deal as paying rent was going to be a problem. She can’t rely on her husband to come home from work with his wages. To add to their problems in no time Katie and Johnny find themselves the parents of a daughter and son.

Francie is the young daughter who along with her brother Neeley and their mother manage to cope with the poverty and often go hungry when Papa loses his job due to his drinking. He’s a singing waiter (who knew?). Papa has charm though and he’s a popular character, I think Francie inherited his charm. She’s a bookish little girl and her favourite place is the library, despite the fact that she doesn’t get much in the way of encouragement from the librarian. She can hardly wait to get home with her books where she sits out on the fire escape to read them, hidden from the neighbours by her tree. I loved Francie and how she matures in this book but there are other great characters in it too, people that I was happy to spend a lot of time with as this book has 487 pages.

To me there’s a vast difference between this one and Angela’s Ashes as in that one the mother is just as bad as the father is and she just spends her time drinking and smoking while her children die of starvation or suffer from terrible health problems that could be easily dealt with by a doctor. However Katie is the opposite, she’s hardworking and resourceful, but she isn’t able to hide that she loves Neeley much more than she loves Francie and Francie has to take second best all the time. This is how it was back then, in fact it was how it was when I was growing up in the 1960s/70s. Boys in families were treated like kings and the daughters were the maidservants. I hope it’s different nowadays!

I read this one for The Classics Club and I think I’ll probably give it five stars on Goodreads.

12 thoughts on “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

  1. This is one book I am very much looking forward to reading, though I’m putting it on my list for 2020. Yes, it seems every woman has read this book, and where have I been? I’m so relieved to hear that the father is not a mean or violent alcoholic.
    And it is so weird what book publicists do. Frankly, I think some of them have absolutely no idea what they’re doing when they try to get people to buy A Tree Grows in Brooklyn because it’s like [not] A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Utter stupidity–the person who approved that for the cover clearly had read neither book.

    • Judith,
      I think you’ll love this one when you get around to it. I was sure you would have read it, I think many people have read it as a set book in US schools.
      I sometimes think that many people working in the publishing industry NEVER read any books and book covers are rarely designed by people who read the book.

      • From what I’ve heard and read in the publishing industry, it is RARE for a graphic artist to read and care about the content of a book, BUT sometimes it does happen!

        • Judith,
          I know that a lot of authors are often really dismayed when they see what is going to be the cover of their precious book. Only the very famous authors seem to get a say in the matter!

  2. YOu liked it! What a relief; I might have had to stop reading your blog if you didn’t! Francie is one of my favorite characters and I have loved this book since I first read it when I was about 10. I don’t understand the comparison to Angela’s Ashes. That just does not work. Besides, I absolutely hated Angela’s Ashes. Betty Smith wrote a few other books. This is her best but I also liked Joy in the Morning.

    • Jennifer,
      LOL. I also hated Angela’s Ashes, it was so depressing, not least because I knew children who had been brought up by parents like that – Irish families who had moved to Scotland because things were so bad in Ireland – but they didn’t help themselves as they drank or gambled any money they got!
      I’ll definitely look out for others by Betty Smith.

  3. I have wanted to read this book for so long. Funny how some books just never make it to the top of the list isn’t it! Glad you enjoyed it, Katrina, I’m sure I will too – eventually!

  4. Nope, you’re not the last woman to have read this book…I haven’t either, but I could be interested after reading your review. It’s one of those that I’ve heard of but never gotten around to reading. Probably because I didn’t come across it in a used book sale:)

    • Paula,
      I’m so surprised, I felt sure you would have read it – maybe at school. I think it’s one of those books that people hang on to though so it isn’t surprising that you haven’t seen it at a used book sale – neither have I. I borrowed it from the library.

  5. Wah, now I’m the only one left who hasn’t read it (oh, with other of your commenters.) I have an audiobook of it which I gave to my ma-in-law. After she died we took it with other audiobooks and are gradually working our way through them. It’s pretty long though so needs to be a long road trip.

    BTW I grew up in the 50s/60s and although my brother got some special treatment I think that was mostly because he was the baby by a few years (4 years younger than my sister and 6 years younger than me). There was a little gender differentiation in tasks, but in terms of love I felt completely equally loved, and in terms of being supported in terms of our education and work goals etc we were treated equally too. I’m sorry that wasn’t your experience.

    • Whispering Gums,
      My mother was very old fashioned but I certainly wasn’t the only female with a mother who really didn’t like girls and unfortunately I was the third, the youngest and my very much favoured brother was 5 years older than me. I get on well with him though and I think being a favourite can end up being a real disadvantage. MY mother did say though that there was no point in putting any effort into your girls as they just grew up to push prams!!

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