A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

It starts with a serene day in Brooklyn in the early years of the twentieth century, a description of a little fire escape, a little corner facing a big tree in the yard; a metaphorical figure looming over Francie Nolan's growing years. It is a quiet coming of age classic about a girl's dreams, about Brooklyn and the American social classes, about immigrants and being poor, about the luminescent characters of two different families: the strong Rommely women and despairing Nolan men. In the outskirts, it is also about a tree.

Francie Nolan is an eleven-year-old girl living in a small apartment with her brother Neeley, her mother Katie, a pretty scrub woman and her father Johnny, the impeccably handsome Irish singing waiter with an on and off job at the union. With the book spanning Francie's life from a young girl to a budding young woman against the backdrop of the shifting years in Williamsburg, we are given glimpses of her honest thoughts and struggles, despair against the harshness around her, and quiet courage to make do of what she has, meager though it was.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn reads almost as a memoir, full of haunting details and mundane descriptions of the every day, like pictures of a still life. The only difference is the grittiness, the rawness of sentiments which glosses the scenes with a harsh light, soaking motion with acute reality. Characters are intimately carved down to the bareness and richness of their person, how each one could claim a dent in molding a girl's being.

I could cry buckets reading this book, but since I read it halfway to my adulthood, seen lots of life and such, it cut too deep for tears to fall. But as much as I loved the way Betty Smith captures the scenes, the characters in their element, I have only half a love for the heroine. I rather found Neely more riveting. Perhaps because I tried to push her into a particular box which she wouldn't fit at all. In that in the end, by sticking to herself she almost came out better than if she'd been fitted to that box and took my imagined path. Francie's unique perspective, her attempts to see the beauty in the surrounding ugliness enabled her to hold her own flickering candle in the dark, so to speak.

The story starts and ends with how a small dream, day dreams, carve a path in life towards a semblance of the said dream.  It's a heartwarming and nostalgic story growing up a midst poverty but as Francie says to Neely at the end, they had fun. There's a bit of Francie in all of us, with a hope as enduring as a tree growing in the broken pavements seeking sunlight.


The beloved American classic about a young girl's coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness -- in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

Title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Author: Betty Smith
Published: 2005
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Rating: ♨♨♨♨ (4 cups - Reading it feels like a parade of memories before my eyes. Piercing, moving and melancholic, the written words hover and remain until we could do nothing except root for the heroine.)