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