Book Discussion: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

6:00 PM - 8:00 PM
Manitowoc Public Library
Board Room

Event Details

Join MPL staff for a book discussion of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith. Books are available near the service desk.

Betty Smith was born Elizabeth Wehmer in 1896, five years earlier than her fictional heroine of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She grew up in the poor section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as the daughter of German immigrants. She left school at age 14 with an eighth grade education to work in factories. She married and raised two daughters before she completed her education, studying at the University of Michigan and later attending Yale Drama School for playwriting.
Betty Smith wrote features for several newspapers and read plays for theater projects while she acted in summer stock productions. She married her second husband in 1943, the same year her first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, was published. She later wrote three additional novels, Tomorrow Will Be Better (1947), Maggie-Now (1958), and Joy in the Morning (1963) but remains best known for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Betty Smith died in 1972.

A beloved classic of American literature, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant tale of childhood and the ties of family. The book focuses on an impoverished but aspirational, second-generation Irish American adolescent girl and her family in Williamsburg, a neighborhood in Brooklyn.
The story begins in 1912, where 11-year-old Francie Nolan and her 10-year-old brother Neeley live with their parents. Francie's imagination and her love of reading provide a temporary escape from the poverty that defines her daily existence. She often looks out her window at a tree, called the Tree of Heaven, that grows amidst the tenement houses and struggles to reach the sky. The novel is split into five "books," each covering a different period in the characters' lives.
Though often categorized as a coming-of-age novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is so much more than that; it is a classic, moving story about what it means to be human. The novel is semi-autobiographical; it was published in 1943 and garnered both critical acclaim and best-seller status. The book was adapted into a 1945 motion picture, and was selected as one of the "Books of the Century" by The New York Public Library.

1. In a particularly revealing chapter of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Francie's teacher dismissed her essays about everyday life among the poor as "sordid," and indeed, many of the novel's characters seem to harbor a sense of shame about their poverty. But they also display remarkable self-reliance. How and why have our society's perceptions of poverty changed - for better or worse - during the last one hundred years?

2. Some critics argue that many of the characters in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn can be dismissed as stereotypes, exhibiting quaint characteristics or representing clich├ęd qualities of either nobility of degeneracy. Is this a fair criticism? Which characters are the most convincing? The least?

3. Francie observes more than once that women seem to hate other women ("they stuck together for only one thing: to trample on some other woman"), while men, even if they hate each other, stick together against the world. Is this an accurate appraisal of the way things are in the novel?

4. The women in the Nolan/Rommely clan exhibit a great deal of strength, and whenever humanly possible, control the family's destiny. In what way does Francie continue this legacy?

5. What might Francie's obsession with order - from systematically reading the books in the library from A through Z, to trying every flavor ice cream soda - in turn say about her circumstances and her dreams?

6. Although it is written in the third person, there can be little argument that the narrative is largely from Francie's point of view. How would the book differ if it was told from Neeley's perspective?

7. How can modern readers reconcile the frequent anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiments that characters express throughout the novel? In light of recent events around the world, how much do these attitudes appear to have evolved over time?

8. Could it be argued that the main character of the book is not Francie, but in fact, Brooklyn itself?

(Questions courtesy of the publisher)

Event Type(s): Book Discussion
Age Group(s): Adults
Service Desk
(920) 686-3000