Growing Up: A Review of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
In 1943, Italy surrendered to the allied forces, the United States completed the Pentagon and formed the All-American Girls’ Baseball League, and Betty Smith published her novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It was a time of world conflict and changing gender roles, and Smith’s book echoes these conflicts and gender issues. Even today, it is a phenomenal novel in the canon of twentieth-century American Literature. It has relatable and interesting themes, well-developed characters, and easy diction yet complex images. I would definitely recommend reading Smith’s book. Smith lets you peek into someone else's world; in this case, you get to look into the world of Mary Frances ‘Francie’ Nolan.
One of the subjects this work of fiction addresses is growing up, and how getting older can completely change your view of the world. Take Francie, for example: as she matures, she stops believing in God, she becomes more sexually curious, and she no longer thinks that everyone is good. Smith excellently conveys these changes, especially with how she structures A Tree Grows in Brooklyn into five ‘books’ to make clearer the transitions. In the first book, we meet Francie and the other characters and see parts of their everyday lives. In the second book, we see Francie’s character’s parents and their families, and Smith carefully establishes traits and characteristics for the characters. In the third book, we read that Francie moves into a new house and goes to school. In the fourth book, we see how the characters have matured and changed; the children have grown up a bit and are now working. The final book, book 5, recounts the transition into their new lives as adults. The novel’s structure, then, helps to show the changes that Francie is going through, which spurs the plot along at a fast clip.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has many relevant and important themes. One significant theme throughout the book is Francie’s loss of innocence. Throughout the novel, you see a young girl grow up and start to lose faith in the world. As the narrator states, “Everything was changing. Francie was in a panic. Her world was slipping away from her and what would take its place? Nothing was changing. She was the one who was changing.” As Smith shows, Francie realizes how her views have changed as she has aged. The emotive significance of this theme is revealed by Smith’s diction, especially the repetition of ‘changing’ and the contrast between ‘everything and nothing’, as well as the tone of ‘panic’. Another important theme discussed by the author is imagination. Francie has an active imagination. She loves to write and read. Her stories and plays are all based on her, on her experiences, or her wishes. Indeed, Francie decides that she will be a playwright when she grows up, although she later decides against it. Francie’s desire to write plays shows that she had lots of ideas that she wants to make into something, while her shifting vision of her own future gives further depth to her character. These kinds of themes are relatable to most teenagers and adults.
Betty Smith, the author, employs a straightforward writing style to create complex and well-developed characters. Take Sissy Rommely, an illiterate woman who has never gone to school, but who is nevertheless witty and clever. All Sissy wants is to have children and she tries ten times but all ten children are stillborn, and each time she divorces the husband and moves on to a new one, calling them all “John.” Sissy tricks her last husband into thinking that they had a child but, in reality, she had adopted the baby from a young girl. Yet Sissy is also incredibly kind and confident. As Francie writes in her diary, “April 20. Aunt Sissy says she’s going to have a baby. I don’t believe it because she’s flat in the front….” Sissy manages to trick her husband and most people. Francie, however, overhears Sissy talking to her mother and thus discovers the secret. Another well-developed character, of course, is Francie. She is a curious girl who is relatable yet unique. She is empathetic and knows more that she is supposed to. For example, she says, “Mama doesn’t love me the way she loves Neeley…I tried and tried to make her love me….” Francie is not supposed to know that her mom loves her brother more than her, but she picks up on it. Such characters, scrappy and clever and fierce, fit well into the setting of the novel in Brooklyn, NY, a setting which further enhances their development.
Indeed, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with its easy but meaningful diction, has excellent imagery. For example, the tree, amidst old buildings and crumbling concrete sidewalks, symbolizes perseverance and hope even amongst hardship. It is a reoccurring symbol in Smith’s novel. As Francie notices, “But the tree hadn’t died...it hadn’t died.” The tree, like Francie, has suffered ordeals yet survived—for the moment. You can tell this by the author's foreboding diction, especially the phrase, ‘still hadn’t died,’ which again emphasizes transition. Despite the complex imagery, Smith uses words that are easy to understand. For example, she writes, “...don’t let mama die....” Francie is talking to God and you can clearly understand what she is saying. Smith’s diction may be simple but it is meaningful, and her imagery is complex.
It is worth noting that Smith’s book contains serious, and more adult topics like death, drinking, rape, starvation, and segregation. I would thus avoid reading this book to children. Some parts of the book have a sort of childish appeal, yet there are also a lot of dark scenes and topics, as when the narrator says, “Francie dreaded the drinking periods–not on moral grounds but because Papa wasn’t a man she knew then.” Now this is a very dark subject that many young children would not have personal experience with and might not understand.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, is an amazing and beautifully written novel. It is tightly structured with relatable themes and well-developed characters, simple yet gripping diction, and rich images. Smith addresses some mature themes, which may be a drawback for younger readers. Overall however, it is a fantastic book, and I highly recommend it for young adults to adults.