A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | Study Guide

Betty Smith

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Course Hero. "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Study Guide." Course Hero. 3 Aug. 2017. Web. 16 Nov. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Tree-Grows-in-Brooklyn/>.

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Course Hero. "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Study Guide." August 3, 2017. Accessed November 16, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Tree-Grows-in-Brooklyn/.


Course Hero, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Study Guide," August 3, 2017, accessed November 16, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Tree-Grows-in-Brooklyn/.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | Book 1, Chapters 1–2 | Summary



Chapter 1

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn opens on a summer Saturday in 1912. The reader is introduced to Mary Francis Nolan—Francie—an 11-year-old girl living in a tenement house in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. A single tree called the Tree of Heaven grows in the yard. Despite the rough conditions, it flourishes. In fact, the reader learns that this tree is a harbinger of a neighborhood in decline. It only grows in poor neighborhoods, but it is hardy and persistent, producing a canopy of miniature umbrella-like leaves. Francie's tree has grown right up around the fire escape outside her apartment, creating a sort of tree house for her.

The first chapter follows her and her brother Cornelius—Neeley—through a typical Saturday that involves collecting junk, which they sell for pennies to Carney, who stores the items, like bits of cigarette-packet foil, rubber, paper, and metal, "in a tumble-down stable." He's a bit peculiar, a guy who gives the girls an extra penny if they let him pinch their cheeks. Francie keeps her "pinching penny" for herself, but turns over the rest to Neeley. He then divides the pennies equally, setting aside half for "the tin-can bank nailed to the floor in the darkest corner of the closet." That's money Katie, their mother, saves toward a better future for her family and for unexpected emergencies.

The neighborhood kids all sell to Carney. Those who get to his place first taunt the ones who follow, yelling out "rag picker!" even though they're just as poor. They also head over to Cheap Charlie's, so named because he misrepresents the prizes a kid can win for a penny. They hope for a spectacular prize, like "roller skates, a catcher's mitt, a doll with real hair," but all they ever get is a less desirable item like a penwiper. That's what Neeley gets on this day, and he trades it in for a penny of candy, as usual. Francie waits to buy something until she gets to "the finest nickel-and-dime store" on Broadway. There, she purchases some peppermint wafers.

Francie returns home at noon. Her mother arrives soon after. Mama sets down her pail and broom with finality, finished with the week's worth of cleaning. Slender and pretty with black hair and brown eyes, Mama is "always bubbling over with intensity and fun." But she's serious. She has to be, since Johnny Nolan, her husband and the children's father, drinks too much and often doesn't work. When he does, the handsome man is a charming and talented singing waiter. She loves him intensely, as do Francie and Neeley.

Before they have lunch, Katie sends Francie out to buy bread and tongue—the end piece, which is cheaper. After a bit of pleading, and because it's Saturday, Katie says she can also buy some buns. With their lunch, they have another bit of luxury: coffee with condensed milk. Katie even lets Francie pour her cup down the drain, if she wants to, since sometimes it's good for poor people to waste a little.

After lunch, Neeley and Francie are sent out once again, this time to buy stale bread at Losher's, where poor people can buy stale loaves on the cheap. The reader learns more about the neighborhood where Francie and her family live, along with the people in it, by following the children to some more of their usual haunts: Neeley meets up with his friends and heads to the baseball lot; Francie follows, even though they don't want her to. The kids harass a Jewish boy. After he leaves, they begin to pick on another kid selling pretzels, but his mother puts a stop to it. After watching a bit of baseball, Francie makes her way to the library.

Chapter 2

The library is small and run down, but to Francie, it is beautiful. She loves everything about it, especially the brown pottery jug on the edge of the librarian's desk. A "season indicator," its contents—holly for Christmas, pussy willow for spring—tell her what season is coming up. And she dreams of owning a home in which she has her own desk, complete with sharpened pencils ready for writing.

With a plan to read every book in the world in alphabetical order, Francie is a voracious reader. Saturdays are the one exception to the plan; on these days, she chooses any book she wants, but always asks the librarian for a recommendation.

Unfortunately for Francie, the librarian is not fond of children. She always hands Francie one of the same two books. The entire transaction—checking out a book for Sunday, asking for a recommendation, and checking out the resulting book—is completed without the librarian ever looking up.

With book in hand, cracked peppermint wafers arranged in a bowl, and a glass of ice water, Francie heads to her fire-escape tree house to read. Sitting on a rug with a pillow propped against the bars, Francie delights in her hideaway. No one can see her, but she can see out through the leaves. She can read to her heart's content, and copy her book—she intensely wants her own book, and had hoped that copying the library edition will fulfill the goal. But it's not the same; it doesn't have the same feel, the same smell.

She peers out into the street and sees Frank, who drives Dr. Fraber's wagon. He's a good-looking young man all the girls flirt with. Bob, the horse who pulls the wagon, reminds Francie of Drummer, the horse her Aunt Evy's husband, Uncle Willie Flittman, drives. Whereas Frank and Bob are friends, Drummer and Willie are enemies. According to Uncle Willie, Drummer stays awake all night figuring out how to do him in.

Flossie Gaddis appears from her apartment to flirt—once again—with a—once again—disinterested Frank. Francie feels a bit sorry for Flossie, who clearly doesn't have the same power over men as does Aunt Sissy, Mama's sister. That's because Flossie is clearly "starved about men, and Sissy was healthily hungry about them." That, apparently, makes the difference.


Book 1 of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn consists of chapters that focus entirely on characters and the ambiance of location. There is little action to distract the reader from what the author wants to generate, namely a rich and textured picture of ordinary poor people in a specific place and time, and how their interactions with each other and their neighborhood contribute to their identities. The particular focus is on Francie Nolan, and her burgeoning view of the world—and at 11 years old, the world is her family and her Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn.

The reader quickly learns about Francie's personality. She's a sensitive, reflective child, one who is reminded, by the way the sun shines on her yard, of poetry learned in school. She is also an ambitious child, aware of what she doesn't have and what she wants. She chooses, for example, not to spend her money at Cheap Charlie's, opting instead for the luxury of the nickel-and-dime store where, with a whole nickel, she has the "power" to buy practically anything she wants. She's already cultivating part of what she wants: a life of reading and writing.

This first chapter also evokes a specific time and place: Williamsburg, Brooklyn, just twelve years after the turn of the century. It is a vibrant community, poor, but the people are mostly proud and hardworking. What unites the community is not ethnicity—the prejudices between Catholics and Jews, for example, are clear—but the poverty attached to new immigrants, who work to establish a foothold in their new country. Francie, because she is born in 1901, heralds not only a new generation, but also the promise of a new century.

Their struggles are symbolized by the Tree of Heaven, that persistent tree that "likes poor people." It also provides Francie with literal and figurative shelter. She will grow up to be intensely devoted to her roots.

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