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Parallels to the Author's Life in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn Essay


Betty Wehner Smiths unique ability to capture the reality of American society in the early nineteen hundreds is seen in the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The setting of the novel stems very much from the authors own childhood. Society can truly relate to this story, as it has a place in every American familys roots. The time-defying novel evokes sympathy by telling the story of a young impoverished family, comparing their rough lives to a relentless tree native to Brooklyn, New York.

Betty Smith was born on December 15, 1904 in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Her name was originally Elisabeth Keogh. Smith attended public schools until the age of fourteen when, having completed eighth grade, she began working at a series of factory and clerical jobs. An avid reader as a young girl, she also wrote poems and acted in amateur productions at the Williamsburg YMCA. Moving to the Midwest, she met and married George Smith, a law student at the University of Michigan. There her two daughters were born. She audited literature and writing classes at the university and, although not a regular student, had two plays published in a collection of undergraduate work and won an Avery Hopwood prize (Collins 23-25).

From 1930 to 1934 Smith studied with George Pierce Baker and others at the Yale Drama School. Smiths first two marriages ended in divorce. After the first divorce, Smith accepted a Rockefeller fellowship in playwriting at the University of North Carolina. She remained in Chapel Hill, writing and occasionally lecturing at the university, also playing small roles in local productions. Her third husband, Robert Finch, a writer with whom she had collaborated on several plays, died about a year and a half after their marriage (Collins 25-28).

A dramatist by inclination, Smith wrote over seventy plays and edited several collections and texts for drama classes. Most of her plays were not published and none received critical acclaim or even major professional performances. Typical of her plays meant for youth groups or schools are The Boy, Abe and First Sorrows, both about the young Abe Lincoln and the death of his mother. Other one-act plays range in tone from burlesque to sentimentality and in setting from a mid-nineteenth-century rural political rally to the sidewalk in front of an illegal abortionists office on a late depression era Christmas Eve (Martin 3).

Though she preferred drama, Smith won her fame through fiction. Drawing upon her own memories and those of her mother, she expanded an earlier work, Francie Nolan, into A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, her most successful novel. It sold millions of copies and was made into a movie and a Broadway musical. Whereas the plot and much of the writing can be criticized for excessive sentimentality, the strength of this highly autobiographical novel lies in the richness of detail with which Smith recreates a young girls childhood and adolescence in the slums of early-twentieth-century Brooklyn, including both the pains of a poverty-stricken childhood and the good times. The characters are vivid and three-dimensional and even the minor characters come alive as recognizable types. Smith obviously drew heavily upon her own experiences for the material of her novels. Her accurate ear for dialogue is the strength in all of them (Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith: curriculum unit 15-16).

The backbone of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Francies life. We follow her, day by day throughout her dreams, hardships, disappointments and victories. It is a wonderful story of a young girl who never loses faith in the outcome of her life. Her mother, Katie Rommely Nolan, is portrayed as a remarkable woman whose methods of survival are beyond admirable. Her father, Johnny Nolan, is a drunk faced with the daily choice between obligation and freedom, ultimately attempting to make a compromise between the two. Many ideas and customs are presented in the novel, such as alcoholism, Irish-Americans, and the Roman Catholic Church and serve to characterize the Nolan family. The entire story, telling the life of a young family, is symbolized by a tree looked upon as dirty and bothersome by most of the world, but is beautiful to Francie and her mother, Katie (Mac 1).

The novel opens with Francie at age eleven and explains the way things are presently. Francie and her younger brother, Neeley collect old metal and trash for the local junk collector in exchange for a few pennies. Half the pennies are spent at the candy store and half are saved in the tin can bank nailed to the corner of the Nolans closet, which will be used to buy land when fifty dollars are collected. Francie spends the rest of her time running errands for her mother, trying to cut deals with the local vendors on old food, and also reading every book in the library (Smith 7-75).

The novel returns back in time when Katie is seventeen and she is introduced to Johnny Nolan, who is dating her best friend. She and Johnny are married six months later and less than a year after that, Francie is born. Neeley comes less than two years afterwards. The novel is than focused on a young family struggling to make ends meet

on Johnnys tips as a singing waiter, the ones not spent on liquor, and on Katies wages as a janitor. The plot continues from here, with several tragedies along the way. Johnny eventually drinks himself to death, dying of Pneumonia in a street gutter. A serial killer attempts to rape and kill Francie when she is fourteen years old, but Katie shoots him before he can cause physical harm (Smith 80-350).

Much is also learned about Katie and Johnnys families. Katie has three sisters, one fairly normal, one in a convent as a nun, and one with behavior resembling a prostitutes named Sissy. Johnny has two brothers, both dead before the age of thirty-five in tragic accidents (Koller 3-4).

Each of the members of the Nolan family has an inner conflict, which governs their lives. For Katie, it is the struggle between giving up her hopes and ambitions to fulfill her responsibilities to her playboy husband and young children. Katie is forced to live with the consequences of her choices early in life. She meets Johnny at the age of seventeen and proceeds to steal him from her best friend because he can dance and is very handsome (Smith 82). They rush into marriage and she is pregnant within a few months. The first evidence of his playboy behavior is when Katie is in labor giving birth, he goes out and gets drunk. This becomes a routine, not being able to hold a job and drinking with what little money the family has. He and Katie both feel obligated to fulfill their wedding vows (Smith 80-150).

When Katie gives birth to Francie, and Neeley less than a year later, she feels hopeless and scared having two mouths to feed and a husband trying to escape. Francie

is born weak, and Neeley is born beautiful and strong. Katie states, I must never let Francie know I love the boy more (153). Katie instills the values of saving money and reading Shakespeare and the Bible in them at an early age. She wants her children to be better equipped to handle the world than she was (Smith 150-200).

As a young woman, Katies dreams are to have a better life than her parents had. Mistakenly, she marries a drunk for a husband, having to look after him, as well as the children. Daily, she experiences hopelessness and despair, doing all she can for her children, hoping to equip them for better lives in the future. She struggles with leaving because she knows she can have something better, but does not in loyalty to her husband and children, and also the Roman Catholic Church (Smith 80-400).

The symbol of the tree is seen here again. This tree is a symbol to all people like Katie, attempting to survive in any way possible. Many talk of cutting down the tree, but it will just grow back. Katie Nolan is a hero because she has not chosen the best path for her life, but strives to make the best of it. Many obstacles have attempted to cut her down, but she continues to grow back (Smith 100-430).

Johnny faces a similar struggle, but for more selfish reasons. Johnnys thoughts are not so obvious as Katies thoughts, but are very clear when talking about pigeons on the roof of their new home with Francie. Francie states, That boy stole a pigeon. And tomorrow someone will steal on of his, replies Johnny. But the poor pigeon, taken away from his relations. Maybe hes got children. Tears came into her eyes. I wouldnt cry, said Johnny. Maybe the pigeon wanted to get away from his relatives. If he doesnt like his new coop, hell fly back to the old one when he gets out again. Francie was consoled (Smith 110-111).

Johnny seems to hope something beyond his control will take him from his family, along with all obligations and responsibilities. All he has ever wanted is to party and drink. He stays because of guilt, and sadly, he openly welcomes death. His feelings and loss of romantic love toward Katie are shown in the situation, Then he undressed and got into Katies bed. She was sleepily aware of his presence and in one of her rare impulses of affection, she threw her arm across his chest. He removed it gently and edged as far away from her as he could. He lay close to the wall. He folded his hands under his head and lay staring into the darkness all the rest of the night (133). He does nothing to take care of his body and eventually withers away in the middle on the night in a lonely street gutter (Smith 100-300).

It is heartbreaking Johnny does not care very much about his family, because he is a flawless idol to Francie. In a way, she feels the same way as Katie, loving her mother more than her father, as Katie loves Neeley more than Francie, causing her to feel guilty. While Francie and Johnny are gazing at the Brooklyn Bridge, Francie contemplates the idea that Johnny actually travels over that magnificent bridge, He went over that magic bridge and still talked and looked like always? She couldnt get over it. She put out her hand and toughed his arm. Surely the wonderful experience of going over that bridge would make him feel different. She was disappointed because his arm felt as it had always felt (110). Johnny also has special nicknames for her, such as Prima Donna. Once he bandaged Francies arm with his undershirt. Francie feels healed. He bandaged the arm. The cloth smelled warm and cigarish. But it was a comforting thing to the child. It smelled of protection and love (132.)

Neeley, the middle child of the family, is also more of a minor character in the family. His conflict is between loyalty to his family and their life of poverty, and the desire to break through and be a member of the more elite, money making class of society. It is first evident in his reaction to receiving his first new pair of long pants for his fathers funeral. She (Katie) bought Neeley a new black pants suit with long pants. It was his first long-pants suit, and pride, pleasure, and grief fought in Neeleys heart (251). It is also evident in his feelings of receiving his own bedroom. Neeleys eyes jumped to his own mothers. A room of his own! A dream come true; two dreams come true, long pants and a room...His eyes saddened then, as he thought of how these good things had come to him (Smith 262).

One other member of the Nolan family is Annie Laurie Nolan, whom Katie became impregnated soon before Johnny died and was born a few months later. She really does not have a strong role in the novel, and is described as a good baby and young child (Smith 275-430).

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