A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | Study Guide

Betty Smith

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

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | Book 3, Chapters 17–18 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 17

The piano in the front room is not the only manna from heaven. A piano teacher lives in the building. Miss Lizzie Tynmore teaches piano. She lives with her sister, Miss Maggie, who "cultivates the voice." Katie strikes a bargain with Miss Lizzie for one lesson a week in exchange for cleaning work. Katie would learn to play the piano, and Neeley and Francie would watch and listen. Francie finds it hard to do so, however, when Miss Lizzie brings out a metronome.

After the lesson, Miss Lizzie lets Katie know she won't charge extra for the children. She's onto Katie—the refined and proper woman is no fool. She knows that Katie has instructed Neeley and Francie to see what they can pick up just from watching.

After the lesson, Miss Tynmore, who, along with her sister, lives on the offer of "tea" after a lesson, tells Francie she'll be a writer. Later, Katie teaches her children what she's learned during her lesson.

Johnny hears that the Miss Maggie Tynmore teaches voice and strikes a similar bargain for her services. Unfortunately, his handyman skills are lacking, and the deal falls through.

Chapter 18

It is time to start school. Francie has heard wonderful stories from her parents about the pull-down map in the classroom, and she thinks about school supplies with something bordering on reverence. There would also be school friends, for whom the lonely child longs. But before that can happen, she has to get vaccinated. Parents fret over germs being injected into their children, but the law is the law.

Francie and Neeley have to go get vaccinated by themselves, since Katie has to work. They are terrified. Although Mama told them to make sure they washed up good before going for their shots, they forget. Worse yet, Francie takes Neeley into the yard to make mud pies to get his mind off his fear. So, they arrive dirty, and are met with the sounds of screaming and bawling. Francie had never met a nurse, let alone a doctor, and is scared by the shiny steel objects laid out like instruments of torture.

She shuts her eyes as she doctor leans in with a needle, but nothing happens. So, she opens them again to find him staring at her dirty arm. "I know they're poor but they could wash," he tells the nurse. He doesn't know she's only been playing in the mud.

The actual shot hurts less than his words, and when he's finished, Francie says, "My brother is next. His arm is just as dirty as mine so don't be surprised," adding, "And you don't have to tell him. You told me." As she stifles a sob, the doctor turns to the nurse, expressing disbelief that Francie could even understand what he was saying, as if she's some sort of alien life form just because she's poor.

Francie wants to tell Mama about the doctor's cruel words, but before she can, Katie tells her that vaccinations are good because they teach her how to tell her left from her right hand. When she gets to school, she'll need to know how to write with her right hand, and a sore left arm will remind her not to write with the left. This satisfies Francie, who thinks the trauma is "a small price to pay if it ... let you know which hand was which."

Analysis

The reader's understanding of the hardships faced by people in poverty in the early 1900s is honed through the Tynmore sisters. Both are proper ladies, skilled teachers, and proud. But they struggle just to get enough food to eat. The fact that they rely on weak tea and soda crackers speaks volumes about their circumstances.

In neighborhoods like the Nolan's, everyone needs some support. The grocer provides store credit, for example, and Katie, who doesn't have much to begin with, doesn't skimp on Miss Tynmore.

Francie's experience with the doctor gives the reader yet another way to understand the divide between rich and poor. One can easily imagine the discriminatory attitudes that attached to poverty—attitudes that still exist today. Francie's life may be hard, but it is the enlargement of her world that can be devastatingly disorienting. Francie somehow seems to intuit the differences in class discrimination exhibited by the doctor and the chalkboard eraser girl from Chapter 15. The girl is too young to know what she's doing, but the doctor should know better. This may be why Francie reacts the way she does: she retreats from the girl, who represents an unwittingly unfair world, but stands up to the doctor to protect her brother, because the authority figure should be a better person than he actually is.

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