A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | Study Guide

Betty Smith

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | Book 2, Chapters 9–10 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 9

Married life starts off fairly well for Johnny and Katie. Both work as janitors at a school, and they are comfortable. But when Katie gets pregnant, Johnny panics. Knowing the responsibility for their lives falls to her, Katie continues to work right through to the beginning of labor. For his part, Johnny rushes home in a confused state, where he drinks and falls asleep. He misses the birth of his daughter, and he fails to arrive at the school in time to stoke the fire that keeps the pipes warm. Consequently, they burst, flooding the basement and first floor. He is fired from his job.

Mary Frances Nolan is small and weak, but she is born with a caul. To be born with a thin membrane covering the face and skull is highly unusual, and is taken as a good sign—the baby "was set apart to do great things in the world." But the midwife steals the caul and later sells it for two dollars to a sailor from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, who wears it in a flannel sack around his neck. Legend has it that the wearer won't drown at sea.

Katie's mother advises her to start saving money so she can buy land. Just as important, she says, is to read to her daughter every night: Shakespeare and the Bible. Later, Sissy arrives bearing a tin can with a starter donation, a used copy of Shakespeare, and a used Gideon Bible. Thus begins Francie Nolan's library.

Chapter 10

"Francie wasn't much of a baby"—Mary Frances Nolan is born fragile and sickly, but Katie, who compares her daughter to the Tree of Heaven, is determined that she will live. As if that's not enough to deal with, when Francie is three months old, Katie's milk dries up and she learns she is once again pregnant.

Cornelius—Neeley—Nolan is a robust baby. Katie finds herself loving Neeley more than Francie, perhaps because he is so much stronger, but she vows that her daughter will never know the truth.

Analysis

Johnny's downward spiral begins when he learns he is to be a father. Both he and Katie are young, but his response is to panic, not buckle down. The latter is more suited to Katie's temperament. The reader is left to wonder how much of Katie, and how much of Johnny, will make up baby Frances.

The reader also learns more of Mary Rommely's strength of character. As an immigrant from Austria married to a brutish man, Mary has had a hard life. She believes that each generation should have things a little bit easier, but also believes that improvement comes from hard work and dedication. Mary never learned to read and write, and since she didn't know that education is free in America, she never sent Sissy to school. If nothing else, her granddaughter will learn to think about important things.

Bettering each generation is a crucial component of the American dream. Mary Rommely may not have realized that dream for herself, and as the conversation she has with Katie just after Francie is born reveals, even her children are struggling to achieve it. Nevertheless, Katie's mother believes it is possible. After all, apart from Sissy, her children can read and write. This, she believes, is an enormous accomplishment and step toward the aforementioned improvement.

At this point in the novel, the reader can also begin to piece together some subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions made between men and women. For all their power—men are allowed to do work women are prevented from doing, men can vote but women can't, men control public and private space through the laws they create and customs they follow, men do not have to bear the physical burdens and risks of pregnancy—men do not have always have the fortitude exhibited by the Rommely women. Because the novel moves so easily in women's spaces, because the Rommely women are constituted by the peculiar strength of character often seen in immigrants and their children, and because the terrible hardships of desperate poverty are softened by a child's wonderment at life, it's not obvious how extraordinary they really are. Katie Nolan has two babies, is dirt poor, and knows she cannot count on her husband to contribute to the family in any meaningful material way. And yet, she loves him.

Katie's vow to keep her preference for Neeley a secret from Francie foreshadows an important aspect of their eventual relationship. For Francie will know the truth, without being told, and without loving her mother less for it.

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