A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | Study Guide

Betty Smith

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | Book 2, Chapters 7–8 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 7

Before Katie Rommely met him, Johnny Nolan was dating her best friend, Hildy O'Dair. One night, Hildy gets Johnny to bring a friend along so she and Katie could double date. That is her big mistake—"her" in this case could refer to either Hildy or Katie. That's because Katie falls for Johnny, and sets about making him hers. She is successful, and Hildy is devastated. At the same time, Katie realizes not long after they marry that Johnny will not amount to much, but she can't help herself loving him.

Meanwhile, the reader learns about Katie's parents: her "devil" of a father, Thomas, who expects her and her sisters to live at home their whole lives in order to take care of him; her saintly mother, Mary, who never received any formal education but has brought the wisdom of the old world with her to America. The reader also learns about Katie's sisters: Sissy, Eliza, and Evy.

Sissy is larger than life. By age ten, she had already blossomed into womanhood, and she thought boys were swell. Married at age fourteen, she suffered her first stillborn child less than a year later. After several more babies were born dead, she left her first husband, a fireman named Jim—though she had called him "John," since she'd always loved that name. All the rest of her men after him she called John, too. More stillbirths followed in her second marriage—she hadn't bothered to get a divorce from Jim, and instead just found a different clerk at city hall to marry her new John. Nobody ever learned his real name, but that didn't matter, since she announced to him eventually that their marriage was over. But she kept on falling in love.

Eliza had been encouraged to enter a convent, which she did. Since she wasn't allowed to leave except when her father died, she isn't much talked about. Francie was nine at the time.

Evy, the youngest, had also married young. Willie Flittman wasn't much of a man, but he played guitar, and didn't seem to stand in the way of Evy's plans to better her station. She took her children—there were three—out of Catholic Sunday school and enrolled them instead at an Episcopal Sunday school, thinking the Protestants more refined.

Chapter 8

Johnny's family is the focus of this chapter. The Nolan clan, from Ireland, consists of four boys: Andy, Georgie, Frankie, and Johnny. All are talented, yet where the Rommely sisters are strong as "thin invisible steel," the Nolan boys are sentimental and weak. None of them live to reach age 35.

Mrs. Nolan was as proprietary on the Nolan side as Mr. Rommely was on his. Ruthie Nolan despised Katie for taking away one of her boys, who she expected to remain at her side until her death. All but Johnny had so far avoided marriage, and he'd even promised to stay with her as she wanted. So Johnny's betrayal put Ruthie in terrible distress. For their part, Georgie and Frankie Nolan thought their brother played a "dirty trick" on them for leaving them all alone with their mother.

Analysis

Book 2 flashes back twelve years, to the day Katie and Johnny meet for the first time. The chapters flesh out more of each of their family's background, though the focus is on Katie's side. They then continue to follow events that lead up to the present day, 1912, the year the book begins.

In these chapters, we see a stark difference between the Rommely women and their male counterparts. These are women who have inherited some subtle—and no so subtle—misogyny. Misogynist attitudes about women's mental and physical incompetence and overall inferiority were more widely accepted and out in the open in the early 20th century, before the struggles of the feminist movement, and the laws of the day reflected this. What Smith's women show the reader is that these views are simply false. The physiology of women is nothing short of Herculean—women bear and birth multiple children without so much as a slug of whiskey to dull the pain. While pregnant, they work as manual laborers. The rationality and temperament of women is nothing short of the equal to any man, as we see repeatedly through, for example, Katie's relentless task of keeping her family afloat, and through Francie's voracious appetite for learning.

Chapters 7 and 8 flesh out Francie's family history on her mother and father's sides, respectively—things Francie wouldn't know, and that the narrator shares to help complete the picture of Francie's life. The reader learns something about how character and personality are formed only through inheritance and experience.

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