Francie Nolan: Coming of Age in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Francie Nolan, the gentle, relatable heroine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is considered in this character analysis from Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in mid-20th Century Women’s Fiction by Francis Booth. Reprinted with permission.

The coming of age of a strong  female protagonist was a surprisingly common theme in mid-20-century literature by women authors. At a time when women’s progress suffered setbacks, perhaps the pages of books were an  outlet for repressed ambitions and desires.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), the first published novel by Betty Smith (1896-1971) is a wonderful example of the female bildungsroman, following the central character Francie Nolan in an epic sweep from age eleven to seventeen.

Beginning in summer 1912, the story centers around Francie and her Irish immigrant family, living in a Brooklyn slum where the children pick rags to make a few cents.


Learning about the world through books

Like Cassandra Mortmain of I Capture the Castle and like some other girls in this genre – Natalie Waite in Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman is another example – Francie is perhaps unreasonably literate, even more so given her poor background. She loves the local public library.

Francie thought that all the books in the world were in that library and she had a plan about reading all the books in the world. She was reading a book a day in alphabetical order and not skipping the dry ones. She remembered that the first author had been Abbott. She had been reading a book a day for a long time now and she was still in the B’s.

Already she had read about bees and buffaloes, Bermuda vacations and Byzantine architecture. For all of her enthusiasm, she had to admit that some of the B’s had been hard going. But Francie was a reader. She read everything she could find: trash, classics, timetables and the grocer’s price list.

Some of the reading had been wonderful; the Louisa May Alcott books, for example. She planned to read all the books over again when she had finished with the Z’s.

We are not told what Francie thought of Jane Austen or whether she has yet reached the Brontës. Francie lives out the metaphor of the tree growing in Brooklyn of the title, which grows outside her window. “An eleven-year-old girl sitting on this fire escape could imagine that she was living in a tree. That’s what Francie imagined every Saturday afternoon in summer.”

Her mother, who is herself only twenty-nine at the start of the story, says: “Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way.”

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Girls in bloom by Francis Booth

Girls in Bloom is available on Amazon US and Amazon UK
Girls in Bloom in full on Issuu
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Thriving through reading

And Francie is strong that way. She thrives at school, and particularly loves her school supplies: “a notebook and tablet and a pencil box with a sliding top filled with new pencils, an eraser, a little tin pencil sharpener made in the shape of a cannon, a pen wiper, and a six-inch, softwood, yellow ruler.”

In a long flashback to when Francie is younger and just starting school, the magic of the discovery of reading and the worlds to which it gives even the poorest girl access, is beautifully captured.

Oh, magic hour when a child first knows it can read printed words!

For quite a while, Francie had been spelling out letters, sounding them and then putting the sounds together to mean a word. But one day, she looked at a page and the word ‘mouse’ had instantaneous meaning. She looked at the word and the picture of a grey mouse scampered through her mind …

She read a few pages rapidly and almost became ill with excitement. She wanted to shout it out. She could read! She could read!

From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours.

There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.

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A tree grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
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Writing, writing, and more writing

Francie keeps a diary, like many girls in this genre. One day, when she is thirteen she writes: “Today, I am a woman.” It’s not clear whether this is because her periods have started. “She looked down on her long thin and as yet formless legs.

She crossed out the sentence and started over. ‘Soon, I shall become a woman.’ She looked down on her chest which was as flat as a wash board and ripped the page out of the book. She started fresh on a new page.”

That same Saturday she sees her name in print for the first time, a story of hers having been printed in the school magazine as the best story in her composition class. But her composition teacher looks down on her family and her way of life and consequently looks down on the stories that Francie writes about them.

“I honestly believe that you have promise. Now that we’ve talked things out, I’m sure you will stop writing those sordid little stories.” Francie is appalled to be called sordid: she loves her mother and father, who do their best for her and her brother. She uncharacteristically lashes out at her teacher. “Don’t you ever dare use that word about us!”

Francie has plans to publish the book when it is finished and has even worked out in her mind a fantasy of the dialogue she will have with her delighted teacher when she sees it. “It was such a rosy dream that Francie started the next chapter in a fever of excitement. She’d write and write and get it done quickly so the dream could come true.”

But there is no food in the apartment, just some stale bread and she can hardly write for hunger. Reading what she has written, she realizes that she has been simply inverting her own poverty: she is writing about a heroine spoilt by a surfeit of rich food because her own hunger has made her obsessed.

Furious with the novel, she ripped the copy-book apart and stuffed it into the stove. When the flames began licking on it, her fury increased and she ran and got her box of manuscripts from under her bed … She was burning all her pretty “A” compositions.’

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Betty Smith

How Betty Smith Came to Write A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
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Entering the working world young

After her father dies, Francie’s mother cannot afford for both her and her brother to go to school and favors the boy. Francie starts working in a factory at the age of fourteen, lying about her age to make herself older so that she can get a job.

Soon, though, she improves her situation enormously, working as a reader in a newspaper office and earning what by her family’s standards is an enormous amount of money while reading for a living.

Even after she loses this job, she falls on her feet and gets a job working a teletype. “She thought it a wonderful miracle that she could sit at that machine and type and have the words come out hundreds of miles away.’”

She works the night shift which takes care of her “lonely evenings,” and allows her to sit outside in the sun during the day. Francie is still only fifteen. Her mother suggests that she could go to college while working the night shift.

But what in the world could I learn in high school now? Oh, I’m not conceited or anything, but after all, I read eight hours a day for almost a year and I learned things. I got my own ideas about history and government and geography and writing and poetry. I read too much about people – what they do and how they live. I’ve read about crimes and about heroic things.

Mama, I’ve read about everything. I couldn’t sit still now in a classroom with a bunch of baby kids and listen to an old maid teacher drool away about this and that. I’d be jumping up and correcting her all the time. Or else, I’d be good and swallow it all down and then I’d hate myself for . . . well, . . . eating mush instead of bread. So I will not go to high school. But I will go to college some day.


A lost chance at love

When Francie is sixteen, she meets Lee, a soldier who is about to go off to the war – this is 1917. He admits she means nothing to him but tries to persuade Francie to spend the night with him. She resists but promises to write to him every day while he is away and marry him when he comes back. And if he doesn’t come back she promises never to marry, or even kiss anyone else.

“And he asked for her whole life as simply as he’d ask for a date. And she promised away her whole life as simply as she’d offer a hand in greeting or farewell.”

Soon afterward, Francie gets a letter from Lee’s mother thanking her for being a good friend to him while he was in New York and telling her that Lee has got married. “I read the letter you sent Lee. It was mean of him to pretend to be in love with you and I told him so. He said to tell you he’s dreadfully sorry.” Francie confides in her mother, Katie.

   “Mother, he asked me to be with him for the night. Should I have gone?”
     Katie’s mind darted around looking for works.
   “Don’t make up a lie, Mother. Tell me the truth.”
     Katie couldn’t find the right words.
   “I promise you that I’ll never go with a man without being married first – if I ever marry. And if I feel that I must – without being married, I’ll tell you first. That’s a solemn promise. So you can tell me the truth without worrying that I’ll go wrong if I know it.”
    “There are two truths,” said Katie finally.
    “As a mother, I say it would have been a terrible thing for a girl to sleep with the stranger – a man she had known less than forty-eight hours. Horrible things might have happened to you. Your whole life might have been ruined. As a mother, I tell you the truth.
    “But as a mother …” she hesitated. “I will tell you the truth as a woman. It would have been a very beautiful thing. Because there is only once that you love that way.”
     Francie thought, “I should have gone with him then. I’ll never love anyone as much again. I wanted to go and I didn’t go and now I don’t want him that way anymore because she owns him now. But I wanted to and I didn’t and now it’s too late.”
    She put her head down on the table and wept.

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Contributed by Francis Booth, the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:

Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde;  Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.

Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and  Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England.

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