- Virginia Johnson
Brooklyn is a tough place to grow up in the early part of the 20th century. It’s made of immigrant families struggling to get by. Young Francie Nolan, half German and half Irish, adores her handsome father, the sometime singing waiter, and her more hard-minded mother who scrubs floors and does much to give her kids a better life. But, uneducated as her parents are, they have few choices and huge problems that a bright girl like Francie can certainly see.
Francie is something pretty rare in her neighborhood—she is a reader, and that makes her different from most children...and lonely. While other kids are skipping rope on the sidewalk and playing games in the streets, she’s loving her trips to the library and sitting on the stoop reading book after book.
But even without friends her own age, it’s not a totally lonely life. Francie has her family, including her flirtatious, illiterate, warm-hearted Aunt Sissy, behind her every step of the way. However, in such poverty—even with love and care, simply being human and therefore imperfect can lead to disaster.
Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, first published in the 1940s, was considered a break-through novel for the way it portrayed real-life problems of the poor. Sometimes banned or kept as a controlled material in libraries for its frank depiction of social issues, including alcoholism and child abuse, its overall message is an uplifting one, as seen through young Francie’s eyes.
Betty Smith, who was raised in immigrant Brooklyn herself, wrote three other novels that portray girls growing and surviving under difficult circumstances. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is considered her masterpiece and is often taught in high school literature courses, but it is very much a book for people who have experienced their own hardships. Joy in the Morning, Smith’s story of young and struggling newlyweds, is also available from the library.