A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1943) cover

Review from The Decatur Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), October 10, 1943, by Layah Riggs:  Betty Smith’s new (and first) novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, may shock you in spots if you were born before 1900, because she tells of a lot of the rawness of the tenement districts of a great city. Anyone who has ever lived or worked in these districts can tell you some of the same.

But  in reading this book it is easy see why the critics have liked it so. It has that elusive thing called pace that keeps it moving and makes it difficult for the reader to put down. There are few spectacular places in the book. but the whole thing grips the interest.

Introducing Francie Nolan

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of a little tenement girl, Francie Nolan, Austrian Rommely on her mother’s side and Irish Nolan on her father’s, second of three children in a family so poor that often the mother and children pretend that they’re marooned on a desert island without food — because in reality they are without food.

But there is good stuff in the Rommely-Nolans, in Francie the little girl who likes to sit on the fire escape in the middle of the leaves of the ailanthus tree (tree of heaven), in Neeley the little boy, and Laurie the baby. No ancestor of theirs on either side, in Austria or Ireland, ever learned to read or write, but the children get themselves to college and right on up.


A pat ending?

There is a slightly implausible fairy-tale ending, when all their troubles are over, but on the whole this is a fine book. For one thing, it shows the stuff some of these families with immigrant backgrounds have in them. the stuff that makes America so strong.

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A tree grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith on Amazon

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More about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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A tree grows in brooklyn flim poster

Betty Smith helped write
 the film adaptation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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6 Responses to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)”

  1. My mother bought me an old battered copy of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” at a yard sale when I was 12 years old. She handed it to me and said that it had been her favorite book when she was my age, and that she though I would enjoy it. I did, and I still do. I’ve read it at least once a year since then. I am now 52 years old, and I still have the old, battered copy from the yard sale!

    • That’s amazing, Julie — a reading a year! But I can understand why. You probably find something new, with new perspective, with each reading.

  2. I read it first at age fourteen, and years later, it’s still my favorite book. It was the first book that I’d read that featured a dysfunctional family somewhat similar to my own, so that was comforting, and at the same time, it’s a very hopeful book. I feel like I know the characters as well as people in my actual life; they feel just as real! As to how many times I’ve reread it–countless! I still have the first copy that I read, tattered with masking and Scotch tape holding it together, and I also have it on my Nook. My perspective has changed, though–I’m much more sympathetic to Katie now.

    • Thanks for the interesting perspective, Dena. Having read ATGIB for the first time as an adult, I definitely related quite a bit to Katie, who, as a mother, did what she needed to do to support and protect her family.

  3. I loved the strength and resilience of Francie. I could see that she got it from her mom, who although she didn’t express her love with great affection you knew that her family was the most important thing to her. Looking back on my own life I can see now there were a lot of parallels to my own life. Not the poverty, but the relationship between Francie and her mom. I loved this book so much that I read it so many times when I was growing up that I wore the cover right off and had to use an elastic band to hold the pages together. I kept it for years until 3 years ago when it was lost in a huge flood that destroyed many things in my home and our town.

    • Thanks for this wonderful comment, Lauren. I came late to ATGIB; if I’d read it when younger, I surely would have read it many times if I had. Reading it as an adult, I was kind of surprised at how frank and honest the book is (Johnny’s alcoholism, Francie’s near-rape, a defensive murder, her aunt’s many miscarriages), and yet young readers around the world have embraced it. It doesn’t shy away from real life’s toughest issues, and I bet it was an education in reality for many young readers. I’ve only had a chance to read it once, and I’m already looking forward to revisiting it! Thanks again for weighing in.

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