A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1943) cover

 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, published in 1943, is the best kind of classic — a book that can be revisited at various stages in life. Each time, it can be seen from a different perspective.

The overarching theme of this coming-of-age story is the power of family bonds.

In a second read-through you might catch some strong feminist themes, and in another, you might focus on what it means to live in poverty in a land of plenty.


A reflection of the author’s life

Betty Smith drew upon her own childhood to tell the tale of Francie Nolan and her family. Like Francie, she grew up in the tenements of Brooklyn at the dawn of the 1900s. She also borrowed from the various jobs she held to flesh out Francie’s experiences.

The family moved around before settling in a top-floor tenement on Grand Street, which served as the inspiration for the Nolan family’s flat in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Betty’s immigrant parents struggled in their impoverished new environment. Her mother Katie (also Francie’s mother’s name in the novel) had a tough exterior, yet loved storytelling — a trait she passed on to Betty. Her alcoholic father died when she was nineteen, similarly mirroring the untimely death of Francie’s father.

After years of struggling to launch a career as a writer, Betty, a single mother raising two daughters, achieved some success as a playwright. But it was with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, her first novel, that she struck literary gold.

The novel was an immediate success, and just two years later, the film version was released. Betty was one of the screenwriters. The film, too, was a success, though it compresses the story severely. As is usual, the book is much better. Read it first if you have any inclination to see the film. 

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Betty Smith

Learn more about Betty Smith
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How the famous title and the story came to be

Here’s what’s behind the title, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:

“For Betty Wehner … the tree that grew outside her bedroom window was much more than merely a sight for sore eyes. It was an ailanthus, a hardy variety of Chinese sumac renowned for its tenacity. It flourishes best, a New York poet once remarked, amid ‘dead vine leaves, a cigarette butt, and a paper clip.’

Young Betty, herself a budding poet, saw the tree as a symbol of survival, a living reminder of her own struggle to escape the pain and poverty of Williamsburg.” (from the introduction to the 1989 edition)

Betty Smith herself tells of how she was inspired to write the novel: 

“It started when I was eight years old. I was playing in one of those Brooklyn streets one sunny afternoon and I saw a group of right-minded housewives throw stones at a mother who wasn’t married. I grew up wanting to protest in some way against intolerance. So you see, Mama, the beginning of this novel really started when, as a child, I began to notice the world of Brooklyn around me.” 

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4 Novels by Betty Smith: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Maggie-Now, Tomorrow Will Be Better, Joy in the Morning

Books by Betty Smith: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and More

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Introducing Francie Nolan

Growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1900s is seen from the perspective of Francie Nolan, a down-to-earth girl who’s neither the kind of genius or beautiful heroine that are favored in novels. She possesses a more relatable kind of awkwardness, but her quiet courage in the face of poverty and other obstacles can’t be overlooked.

Members of Francie’s immediate and extended family populate this novel with complex, sympathetic characterizations. Especially memorable are her mother, Katie, and Katie’s man-crazy yet ultimately wise sister, Francies aunt Sissy.

All the characterizations are touching, including Francie’s hapless yet loving father, Johnny, and her stalwart brother, Neely. It is to her credit that Francie doesn’t grow resentful of her brother, even as she is aware of how much her mother favors him.

Though A Tree … tells the story of a girl’s adolescence, it was never positioned as a children’s or young adult novel. Nor was it aimed entirely at a female audience. Indeed, it was a favorite of American soldiers serving overseas during World War II. In an essay titled “A Tree Grows in Guadalcanal,” Mollie Guptill Manning wrote:

“Soldiers reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn found hope for their own futures as they read of the tremendous adversity Francie had to overcome. They related to the tree that grew in Francie’s yard that just would not die, as they, too, lived despite the odds that seemed stacked against them. The book also provided a precious reminder of their own families and hometowns.”

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Memorable quotes from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
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A 1943 review of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

It’s always fascinating to read reviews from the time in which books that became classics were published. Was their potential often recognized, here’s a review from The Decatur (IL) Daily Review, 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.

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.

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

Francie Nolan: Coming of Age in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
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A tree still grows …

Betty Smith’s subsequent novels didn’t have nearly the impact of her first, which is still being read and discussed. ”Brooklyn,” Francie tells her brother at the end of the novel. ”It’s a magic city and it isn’t real … It’s like — yes — a dream … But it’s like a dream of being poor and fighting.”

Robert Cornfield reflected in a 1999 New York Times essay, “A Tree Still Grows in Brooklyn”: 

“The civilization of Smith’s Williamsburg exists in very few living memories — it will be soon a century away. In that stretch of Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side, you still find Francie’s streets and tenements. And when even these isolated signposts are gone, the spirit of the book, the lives and struggles it celebrates, will be with us, reminding us of who we were and who we still are.”

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A tree grows in brooklyn flim poster

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

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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