A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | Study Guide

Betty Smith

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn | Plot Summary

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Summary

Book 1

Francie Nolan's impressionistic description of her neighborhood includes squalid tenements, run-down schools, and poverty that gets deep into people's bones. But the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn is, to Francie at least, "serene." She sees it in the way the Tree of Heaven, the only tree in the yard, grows and practically envelopes the third-floor fire escape of Francie's apartment. It is a special tree, growing in improbable places against seemingly impossible odds—and it only grows in poor, or soon-to-be-poor, neighborhoods. As the narrator points out, the tree "likes poor people."

Eleven-year-old Francie Nolan and her brother, Cornelius ("Neeley"), collect junk to sell for pennies. Every little bit helps their mother, Katie, and their father, Johnny. Katie has taken on the role of breadwinner, working as a janitor cleaning four buildings in order to put food on the table. Johnny is an alcoholic. The charming, handsome but troubled father works only sporadically as a singing waiter. It falls on Katie, then, to carry the practical burdens of day-to-day survival. The facts of her life are not lost on Francie, nor on their neighbors. Everyone knows that Katie's husband is a drunk. They also know he's "a handsome and lovable fellow far superior to any man on the block."

The first six chapters that comprise Book 1 occur on a single Saturday. It's a day in the life of Francie and her family, and in those daily moments, much is revealed about the main characters and life in Williamsburg. For example, the reader follows Francie and Neeley as they cash in their scraps at the junkie's for pennies.

Somehow, Mama makes sure everyone eats, but there are times when Francie is hungry. After her mother and Aunt Sissy come home, she and Neeley "were sent out for the weekend meat." Back at home, another of Mama's sisters, Aunt Evy, and her morose husband, Willie Flittman, have arrived. Uncle Flittman is missing the middle finger of his right hand, but he still plays the guitar he brought along. Before bed, Neeley and Francie each have to read a page of the Bible and a page of Shakespeare, a task they rush through between them. Late in the night, Johnny comes home. Neeley and Francie, who was allowed to set up a makeshift bed in the front room on Saturday nights, get up to greet him. Francie falls asleep to Mama and Papa's quiet patter.

Book 2

Book 2 flashes back to the summer of 1900. That's when Johnny Nolan and Katie Rommely first met. Johnny, 19, and Katie, 17, are both children of immigrants; Johnny comes from Irish stock, Katie from Austrian. Katie and her best friend, Hildy O'Dair, work at the Castle Braid Factory. Johnny is Hildy's fella, but Katie falls for him one night. Her biggest mistake, perhaps, was wanting him so much that, if she got him, "She'd ask nothing more than to look at him and listen to him for the rest of her life." She was willing to put in a life of slaving away just to have him. That Monday, she began her campaign.

Despite the hurt it caused Hildy, for which Johnny alone generously claimed responsibility, pretty Katie Rommely got her man. Four months later, on New Year's Day 1901, and much to Mr. Rommely's anger, Katie and Johnny married. Mr. Rommely didn't want any of his daughters to marry, since his expectation was that, when old enough, they should work to support him. Mrs. Rommely, on the other hand, "was a saint." Uneducated but wise with thousands of stories and legends, the deeply religious woman was profoundly compassionate—despite being married to the self-professed devil. Their girls, Sissy, Eliza, Evy, and Katie, were made out of the same stuff that Francie was to be: "thin invisible steel."

Sissy was the eldest. By age ten, she had the figure of a mature woman of thirty—and the interest in boys to match. By fourteen, she'd lied about her age to marry a fireman, Jim. Madly in love, Sissy was pregnant a month after she got married. If it was a boy, she'd name him John—she loved that name, and even started calling Jim by it to the point where everyone else did, too. But despite a remarkably easy and fast labor, her baby, a girl, was stillborn. So were the three others she'd had by the time she was twenty. Figuring it was Jim's fault, she divorced him, but there would be more stillbirths—and many Johns—to come.

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—all handsome, talented, and popular with the ladies—whom 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.

After their marriage, Katie and Johnny both work as janitors at a school. Within a year, however, Katie is pregnant; Johnny's drunken panic at her pregnancy leads him to lose his job.

Born fragile, small, and sickly, Francie isn't guaranteed to live. But she is born with a caul, or covering membrane, which many take to be a sign of promise. By the time Francie is three months old, Katie is pregnant again. Neeley is born a week after Francie's first birthday. Katie can't help but feel a special tenderness for the robust boy, and consequently can't help but feel shame at the "slash of contempt for the weak child she had borne a year ago."

Over the course of Francie's first six years, due to Johnny's drinking and Aunt Sissy's sometimes thoughtless behavior, the family is forced to move several times, finally landing on Grand Street. Katie tries to save money to buy a house, but each move drains some of the treasured savings. Francie still has her beloved books, though, and she and Mama and Neeley read together every night, even if they don't understand what the words on the pages mean.

Book 3

Book 3 resumes the story begun in Book 1, following Francie from age seven to 14. When the Nolans first move into the four-room flat in Grand Street, Francie can look down on the Tree of Heaven from her window. It reaches only up to the second story.

Francie and Neeley, age seven and six, respectively, begin school, to Francie's great anticipation. But she doesn't fit in at school. She is a little girl too bookish and smart for her social class, but not well off enough to mix with those who weren't poor. Worse still, she realizes she will never be a teacher's pet, even if she doesn't yet fully understand why that privilege is reserved for the shopkeepers' daughters, "with freshly curled hair, crisp clean pinafores, and new silk hairbows." (It doesn't help that Francie's presentation doesn't exactly attract friends. The reader shortly learns she stinks of garlic and kerosene oil. Worried about illness, Katie makes her children wear garlic cloves around their necks and rubbed kerosene into Francie's scalp to prevent lice and nits from taking up residence.)

Nothing, however, compares with the disappointment Francie feels when her illusions about education are shattered by reality. It's not just the ratty buildings. She is used to those. It's the facts about education. Teachers and principals could be, and often are, ill-suited to their vocations. Not only that, but teaching children is a woman's job, and since married women aren't allowed to teach, it seems clear that "most of the teachers were women made neurotic by starved love instincts." Those teachers, "barren women," took out their frustration on their charges, including Francie and other poor children. The latter are forced to sit at the back of the classroom and, worse yet, are told not to use the bathroom until recess. Even then, not every child could use the facilities.

None of these torments can undermine Francie's love of learning. The brutal days were intermittently broken up by the arrival of the music teacher and the drawing teacher. For Francie, those were "the gold and silver sun-splash in the great muddy river of school days." Words on the page also begin to have meaning, and Francie knew she would never again be lonely. Books, and all the individuals in them, would be her lifelong friends.

More improvement comes by chance when a Saturday stroll in October brings Francie to a little brick school. She has found her ideal school, and waits patiently that night to speak to her Papa about it. He tells her he'll see about getting her in, and though the scheme involves lying about their residence, Francie is deliriously happy at her new school. Neeley chooses to remain where he is.

The Tree of Heaven continues to grow. Eventually, its branches envelope the fire escape, which creates a sort of tree house just for Francie. Life is hard, harder than it should be for children, but there are Christmas and other traditions to enjoy. Francie marks the year by its holidays.

Katie realizes the children's education will get them out of Williamsburg, away from the dirt and grime and hardship. At the same time, she knows this will take Francie further away from her than she already is, both physically and emotionally, but she is determined. She has to be, as she also realizes her Johnny, whom she had loved so much, won't be with them too much longer. For his part, Johnny continues to struggle as a father, meaning well but falling short. Slowly, through the neighborhood grapevine, Francie realizes what people think of her beloved father.

Similarly, as Francie grows up, she begins to see through the devices her mother uses to distract her and Neeley from their hunger and poverty. When food ran low, Katie would have them pretend they were explorers at the North Pole, trapped in a cave during a blizzard. The game was to make what little food they had last until they were rescued. Then, when she got some money, Katie would buy a little cake with the groceries to celebrate. One day, Francie asks her mother the point of being hungry. She can understand the suffering endured by explorers; it was for a reason, so they could discover the North Pole. "But," she asks, "what big things comes out of us being hungry like that?" A suddenly tired-looking Katie responds, "You found the catch in it."

The summer she is thirteen, Francie starts keeping a diary. She sees features of society that baffle her. Women, she learns, aren't always kind to each other, especially when sexual matters are involved, and society isn't always kind to women. A girl with a baby born out of wedlock is taunted and ridiculed by the neighborhood women, who throw stones when the girl defends herself. Aunt Evy isn't allowed to work her husband's milk route after his horse kicks him in the head—this even though he can't work while he's laid up in the hospital.

The world has begun to change, too. War breaks out in Europe, and prohibition and women's right to vote are all on the horizon. The following summer, Katie finds Francie's diary and insists that Francie strike out each instance of "drunk" and replace it with "sick," which makes the entries almost ridiculous. But while Katie is ashamed of her husband's alcoholism, she isn't ashamed to speak to her daughter as an adult. And when Francie starts getting curious about sex, she doesn't blink. Unlike other neighborhood parents who didn't talk about it because they lacked the vocabulary for what they did with each other, Katie "told her simply and plainly all that she herself knew." If she didn't have the proper words, she used the dirty ones, but only because she wanted to be forthright with her daughter. Katie Nolan is fearless—well, almost.

There is something that scares everyone: a molester on the loose. There is one in Williamsburg the next year, when Francie turns fourteen. Even if people didn't talk about sex, they talked nonstop about this criminal. They're scared out of their wits when a seven-year-old girl on Francie's block is murdered. Everyone closes ranks until the child-rapist and murderer is caught. It is Katie who both saves her daughter and ensures the rapist-murderer will never hurt another child.

Life churns on, alternately good and bad. Sissy devises a way to get a baby that she can pass off as her own by adopting the baby born by a young girl who is pregnant out of wedlock. Sissy finally has a daughter, Sarah, whom everyone calls Little Sissy. Francie has just turned fourteen, and Neeley's thirteenth birthday is any day now. But then Johnny is finally kicked out of the Waiters Union.

Utterly heartbroken and worried with their perpetual financial problems with Christmas right around the corner, Johnny breaks down completely. Three days later, he's dead; he had been found unconscious and huddled in a doorway. With no identification on him, there was no family to notify. Sergeant McShane put the pieces together. He was the same cop who'd been in and out of the Nolans' lives before, the last time being when Francie was attacked by the child molester. Katie and he had formed a bond, so he took Katie to the hospital, where Johnny lay dying of pneumonia. She sat with him until he died. Now she insists that the doctor at the hospital leave off alcoholism as the cause of death.

After Johnny's death, Francie continues with life as before—she goes to church, she goes to school—but she is deep in grief. Her writing reflects her emotional state, much to her teacher's dismay. Meanwhile, Katie gives birth to her third child, Annie Laurie. Later, Francie and Neeley graduate from school.

Book 4

Frannie Nolan has her first job at an artificial flower factory. Aunt Sissy is pregnant again—after ten stillbirths, and closing in on 37 years old, she still wants a baby of her own, however much she loves her Little Sissy. Katie can't work as much with Annie Laurie to take care of, but Francie and Neeley make up the difference and are proud to contribute.

It's not until Katie decides that there's only enough money for Neeley to go to high school that Francie openly breaks with her mother. Neeley won't continue his education unless he's forced, Mama reasons, whereas Francie will always be a learner. This does not assuage Francie, but she acquiesces to her mother's wishes. Though she's hopeless about leaving school initially, her perspective eventually shifts. At fifteen, Francie no longer wants to go to high school, sitting "with a bunch of baby kids and listen to an old maid teacher drool away about this and that." She knows she's too well-read, too accomplished a writer for all that. But talking to her mother gives her an idea.

Francie's lifelong devotion to reading and writing has resulted in skills that make it possible for her to take summer college classes. She works at night, after all, and can fit in some classes during the day. A helpful boy named Ben Blake guides Francie through the book-buying process, and soon becomes her "guardian angel." A high school student who's been taking summer college courses for three years, Ben will graduate having already completed more than a year of college.

Francie also falls in love for the first time, and it does not end well. A young soldier about to ship off to war deceives Francie by making her think he is unattached—and in love with her. When she learns the truth, she is devastated, but this, too, is an opportunity to grow. Meanwhile, Sergeant McShane asks Katie to marry him, and she agrees.

Book 5

That fall, Francie works her last day at her job. She is going to attend the University of Michigan, having passed the college entrance exams with Ben's help. She'd wanted to go to Columbia or Adelphi, but everyone—Ben, Katie, McShane, and Neeley—all agreed going away to school was a good thing. At least she had Ben's high school ring. It was engraved inside: "B.B. to F.N."

And then it's Saturday, time to return her library books for the last time. The family prepares for Katie's wedding, and the move to the new home. As Francie leaves her home, she notices the Tree of Heaven, still growing, despite efforts to kill it. Seeing a girl sitting on a fire escape across the way, she whispers, "Good-bye, Francie."

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Katie and Johnny meet and marry.

Rising Action

2 Katie and Johnny work as janitors at a school.

3 Johnny begins drinking when Katie learns she is pregnant.

4 Francie is born sickly and fragile; Johnny is fired.

5 Neely is born.

6 The Nolans move several times, finally to Grand Street.

7 Francie and Neeley start school.

8 Johnny Nolan dies.

9 Francie helps her mother prepare for the birth of Annie.

10 Francie learns she won't be able to go to high school.

Climax

11 Francie works a series of jobs to help support her family.

Falling Action

12 Francie takes summer college courses.

13 A callous soldier heading off to war breaks Francie's heart.

14 Katie prepares to marry and move the family.

Resolution

15 Francie packs to leave for the University of Michigan.

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