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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Book Review

11.17.21
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Book Review

A week or so ago, I came across a list of twenty books I had promised myself I would read by the end of 2021. Given that we were a week or so into November at the time, I read through the list, and saw – with some horror – that of the twenty books, I had read just five. After a swift perusal of my bookcases to find as many of the fifteen as I could, I soon after discovered that a handful of them were rather substantial in size: with Don Quixote, Middlesex, The Hearts Invisible Furies and The Golden Notebook all topping 500 pages. Calculating that if I even wanted to make a slight dent in them that I would have to read at least 100 pages a day before the year was out, I scanned my new to-be-read pile, and decided to begin with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Knowing I had tried – and failed – to read it on a couple of previous occasions, but also aware that it was globally adored by critics and readers alike, I blocked out a solid two hours that very afternoon, turned my phone off and set about reading Betty Smith’s best loved book.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Book Review

A beautiful coming of age tale that follows the Nolan family – parents Katie and Johnny, their eleven-year-old daughter Francie Nolan – a girl who her grandmother Mary Rommely believed was destined for a special life – and her younger brother Neeley, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a gentle, understated, and at times heartbreaking story that offers a glimpse into a little corner of the world a century ago, and yet still has the power to resonate with readers today.

Francie is a truly memorable character – who does her best to find beauty and meaning in the day to day – despite her family’s financial woes and the relentless poverty their lives are plagued with. The children’s adored father Johnny is a jobbing singing waiter, and – despite the love he has for both his wife and children – is plagued by demons and alcoholism, leaving him unable to properly look after or provide for his family. And while her mother loves them both fiercely, she often seems to favour Neeley, leaving Francie feeling unloved and unwanted.  

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And while the premise of a loving yet flawed family living in dirt-poor Brooklyn is a simple one, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn uses stunning prose, a rich tapestry of multi-generational characters and the age-old idea of the American dream to deliver a poignant and powerful story of a young girl learning to persevere – like the tree of the book’s title – to make a better life for both herself and those around her.

A story about poor but proud working-class Americans, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a beautiful and beloved tale of what it really means to be human.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Summary

The beloved American classic about a young girl’s coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

Buy A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from Bookshop.org, Book Depository or Waterstones.

Further reading

I loved this on the New Yorker: Why Mark Zuckerberg should read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Betty Smith author bio

Born in Brooklyn, New York to German immigrants, she grew up poor in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. These experiences served as the framework to her first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943).

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After marrying George H. E. Smith, a fellow Brooklynite, she moved with him to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he pursued a law degree at the University of Michigan. At this time, she gave birth to two girls and waited until they were in school so she could complete her higher education. Although Smith had not finished high school, the university allowed her to enroll in classes. There she honed her skills in journalism, literature, writing, and drama, winning a prestigious Hopwood Award. She was a student in the classes of Professor Kenneth Thorpe Rowe.

In 1938 she divorced her husband and moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There she married Joseph Jones in 1943, the same year in which A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was published. She teamed with George Abbott to write the book for the 1951 musical adaptation of the same name. Throughout her life, Smith worked as a dramatist, receiving many awards and fellowships including the Rockefeller Fellowship and the Dramatists Guild Fellowship for her work in drama.

Other Betty Smith books

Her other novels include Tomorrow Will Be Better (1947), Maggie-Now (1958) and Joy in the Morning (1963).

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2 comments on “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Book Review”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful and perceptive review! I discovered “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” when I was 15. Over the years I have nearly worn out my copy, and continually recommend it to family members and friends.

    The author captures a bygone time with insight and fondness. Her characters leap off the page.

    It is always stressful when a beloved book is made into a movie. Elia Kazan’s 1945 film does an excellent job of recreating the time and place, and Dorothy Maguire, James Dunn, and Joan Blondell are wonderful in their roles. Unfortunately, the cxhildren are less successful. Peggy Ann Garner as Francie is too timid, and Ted Donaldson as Neeley is just loud. I would love to see a remake.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Jacqui. And yes I completely agree, film adaptations can be very painful for readers! xo

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