A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Betty Smith

Reviewed by Hannah Metzger, age 13

"Dear God, let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry...have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well-dressed. Let me be sincere- be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost."
These are the words of a conscientious little girl named Mary Frances Nolan, or “Francie,” as everyone calls her. She enjoys learning and especially loves reading and writing. However, Francie’s life is not as perfect and dreamy as the stories she writes. She and her family live off of pennies. Her mother, though hardworking, is harsh and favors her little brother, Neely. Her beloved father struggles to hold a job and grows weak from too much drinking. Rumors of a local rapist prove to be true. War could start any day. Francie strives for as much education as possible, but also needs to help support her family.
The year that Francie turns thirteen, death and birth bring hard changes to her family, and the Nolans are barely able to scrape by. Francie is forced to quit school and get a job. She works in factories and slips farther and farther away from her dream of becoming a writer. All she wants is to be something, yet this is an almost impossible dream when coming from the slums of Brooklyn. Francie’s determination is put to the test, but even the hardships of the city are no match for her strength of spirit.
I love the detailed feelings that Betty Smith brings to this coming of age story. The simple events she includes to show the reader what the poorest parts of Brooklyn were like in the early years of the 20th century are pure artistry. There is a complexity to the personality of each character that you come to know and love. You cry for them. You laugh for them. You feel for them. The people in this book are not the shallow kind of characters you find in a normal story. They are relatable, even though they are from the 1900s. Even the smaller characters contribute to the picture of what the city was like back then. All of the stories, songs, words, opinions, traditions, jobs, policies, unions and small problems play a part in showing the reader what the culture of Brooklyn was like.
It is so hard to sum this book up into one main idea or moral. There are so many complicated elements to it; some obvious, and some more hidden. If I had to describe it in one sentence, I would say it is about the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity. Smith paints a great picture of what life was like in Brooklyn, although there are some disturbing events. One main theme this book embraces is the American dream; the idea that through hard work, you can achieve your dreams. The thought of being able to do what you set your mind to is an inspiration, but this story illustrates that sometimes the harsh realities of life have the ability to crush even the simplest of dreams. Francie’s dream is to become a writer, but she is set back multiple times on her path to achieving this goal.
Though this is a fantastic book, it deals with very intense topics. The publishing of this brutally honest novel was a shock to many when it was put out about 70 years ago. One woman even wrote to Smith saying an author of such a book should live in a stable. Many people are used to stories where all the problems are solved. This is a different kind of book that is authentic to how life was at the turn of the century and still can be today. However, I don’t want to make this novel sound completely dark and depressing book, because it is not. There are many morals and lessons to learn from it. I would definitely recommend it, but only to high school and mature middle school aged teens at an appropriate reading level. Adults will enjoy it as well.
This classic coming of age story is a must read! It’s no wonder it has stayed an important piece of American literature for so long.