Book 1 includes the first six chapters of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and provides background information about the Nolan family and specifically Francie Nolan, the novel’s protagonist. The setting is a poor immigrant area of Brooklyn called Williamsburg. There is a tree growing in the area that survives no matter how poor the soil or water. The tree is called the Tree of Heaven by some of the residents; it grows only in the neighborhood where the poorest people live.
The book opens on a typical Saturday. Francie and her younger brother, Neeley, spend part of the morning collecting metal scraps to sell to the junk man. The children keep half the money, and half is put in the tin can bank at home. Francie’s mother, Katie, works as a janitor cleaning three buildings. Francie’s father, Johnny, drinks and does not support the family. He is charming but irresponsible. His job is singing at weddings and in restaurants. He earns good tips but uses the money to buy alcohol. Francie loves her father, in spite of the fact that he tells Francie that he never wanted a family. He has told her this many times and she is always hurt, but she quickly forgives him. Francie describes one of her aunts to readers. Aunt Sissy is funny and vivacious. She works in a condom factory, although the actual product made there is not discussed. Instead, Francie knows that this factory makes rubber toys and other rubber articles that are never described.
In these first six chapters, Francie describes several trips to buy food, so readers know that food is important in the story. Later Saturday evening, Francie’s Aunt Evy and Uncle Willie Flittman visit. Uncle Willie complains about his horse, Drummer, who urinates on him. Willie also complains that he is a failure, since even the horse does not respect him. His self-esteem is poor and so he is similar to Johnny, who also knows he is a failure. As Neeley and Francie prepare for bed, they read one page from the Bible and one page from Shakespeare, as they have done since they were old enough to read.
Book 2 consists of chapters 7–14. In the first two chapters of this section, which jumps back in time to begin in 1900, readers learn the story of Katie and Johnny’s courtship and wedding. This chapter also provides background information about Katie and Johnny Nolan’s family. Katie’s father, Thomas Rommely, hates Katie’s marriage because he wanted all four of his daughters to work their entire lives to support him. Sissy, the oldest of Katie’s sisters, did not attend school and cannot read or write. Katie’s second sister, Eliza, was encouraged to become a nun. The third sister, Evy, married Willie, with whom she has two sons and a daughter. Johnny is also one of four children, all boys. All of Johnny’s brothers died by age thirty, which suggests to readers that Johnny is also destined to die young. Johnny’s parents, Ruthie and Mickey Nolan, were immigrants from Ireland. All four of the Nolan boys have worked as singing waiters.
Katie and Johnny are happy when they are first married, but by the time that Katie discovers she is pregnant, she already knows that Johnny cannot be relied upon. While Katie is giving birth to Francie, Johnny gets drunk and loses his job. After the baby is born, Katie’s mother, Mary, visits with good advice for her daughter, including the advice to begin saving money so that she can buy land; Mary believes that owning land is the only way that poor people can escape poverty. Mary also tells Katie that she must read to her children and they must read Shakespeare and the Bible every day, since these are the most important books ever written.
When Francie is three months old, Katie discovers that she is pregnant again. Francie is not a healthy baby, but Katie compares her daughter to the Tree of Heaven, which survives no matter what happens. The second child is a big healthy boy, Neeley. Katie loves Neeley more than anyone, although she vows that Francie will never know her mother loves her brother more. After Johnny celebrates his twenty-first birthday by staying drunk for three days, Sissy tells Katie that everyone has something about them that must be tolerated. Drinking is Johnny’s weakness, and Katie must learn to live with his weakness. Katie knows that Johnny is not dependable and that he will not be able to support his family. She decides that the family must move where no one will know that Johnny is a drunk. Katie moves the family to the outskirts of Williamsburg, and in exchange for janitorial work, the house will be rent-free.
After the move, things continued as they had before. Johnny still drinks, and Katie works. When not in the apartment, Francie watches the other children play games, but she is not invited to play with them. As a result, she is very lonely. She speaks like Shakespeare or in the antique language of the Bible–the only speech she has learned at home. The family has to move a second time after Sissy flirts with a policeman and then creates a small scandal with some condoms that Francie and Neeley find and blow up into balloons. The family moves to a new apartment in Williamsburg. Francie is six and could start school, but Katie makes her wait a year for Neeley so that they can go together.
Book 3 consists of chapters 15–42. The first few chapters of this book describe the apartment and the neighborhood where Francie will grow up. She is six years old and it is 1907. The kitchen looks out over a courtyard, where the Tree of Heaven grows out of the cement. Neeley will soon be old enough to start school, and so in chapter 18, Katie tells Francie and Neeley that they must walk to the health department clinic by themselves, where they will receive their school vaccinations. Francie tries to distract her brother, who is afraid of the shot, by helping him make mud pies before they leave. When they arrive at the clinic looking very dirty, the doctor sees the dirt on Francie and begins complaining that the poor are filthy and not even capable of using soap and water, and the nurse agrees.
Francie has been looking forward to school, but she learns right away that the teacher likes only the rich children. Bullies rule recess and do not allow the poor children to use the bathroom, but the teachers will not allow them to use the bathroom at other times. After Francie wets her pants, Sissy goes to Francie’s teacher and tells her that she is Francie’s mother and that her husband is a cop. The teacher is sufficiently intimidated that in the future she allows Francie to use the bathroom when she raises her hand. Because of overcrowding, many children at school have lice, which creates embarrassment within the community. When Katie learns of the epidemic of lice, she scrubs Francie’s head with the harsh soap that she uses to clean the floors and then combs kerosene through Francie’s hair. Katie combats a mumps epidemic by tying garlic around the children’s necks. The kerosene and garlic further isolate Francie, who still has no friends.
One day Francie walks beyond the borders of her neighborhood and ends up in a neighborhood where there are no large apartments, which means the population is not as densely packed together. She sees a lovely brick school building and wants to attend. When Francie asks her father, he agrees that she can change schools. Francie does not mind that she must walk twenty-four blocks each way to the new school. The school is much nicer, perhaps because all the students are the children of parents who have lived in the United States for many generations. These parents understand the system better and have a clearer sense of their rights than immigrant parents.
By chapter 25, readers learn that Johnny has begun to drink even more, but on those occasions when he is sober, he tries to be a better father to his children. One day, he takes Francie and Neeley to the elegant Bushwick Avenue to show them what they can achieve living in a democracy. Anything is possible in the United States. At Thanksgiving, one of the children brings a small five-cent pumpkin pie from home. Francie’s teacher asks the children if someone wants to take it home but no one wants to accept charity. Francie says she will take it and give it to a poor family. Instead, Francie eats the pie as she walks home. The next day when the teacher asks about the pie, Francie lies but finally admits the truth. The teacher tells Francie that she should always tell the truth, but that she can write down stories as they should have happened. Francie’s teacher provides an important first step toward turning Francie into a writer.
It is Christmas in chapter 27, and the children go to a tree lot, where they hope to get a free Christmas tree. At midnight, the tree lot owner always throws the leftover trees into the crowd. When the man throws the first tree, which is always the largest tree left on the lot, no one thinks the children can possibly catch this giant tree. The tree is ten feet tall and the children are very small. For a moment, the tree lot owner feels a twinge of guilt about throwing such a large tree to the children, but then he reasons that if he gives it to them, everyone will expect the same treatment. The children do catch it, although Francie is hit on the head by the tree trunk and Neeley receives some scrapes. On Christmas Day, Katie makes a huge fuss over Neeley’s gift, calling it the best gift she has ever received. Francie is hurt because her mother pays little attention to the gift that Francie gives her. Francie begins to realize that her mother is not always right about everything, but she also learns that her father’s drinking is a problem for the family. As she gets older, Francie is less able to be distracted from her hunger and the family’s poverty.
In the opening chapters of the novel, Willie has said how much his horse hates him and that Drummer urinates on him while he washes the horse’s belly. Willie is mean and abusive to the horse, which finally retaliates by kicking Willie in the head and knocking him out. Since Willie must stay in the hospital, Evy begins to deliver the milk to Willie’s customers. Drummer loves Evy because she heats his oats and feeds him carrots and sugar cubes. She also warms up the water to wash him each day, and when it is cold, she puts a warm blanket over him. In response, the horse works hard and helps Evy with the milk route. Women are not permitted to work these kinds of jobs, though, and so as soon as Willie is well, he returns to work. Drummer, however, refuses to work for Willie, and eventually Willie is given another horse.
In chapter 32, Francie is fourteen. She began writing in a diary when she was thirteen. When Katie finds the diary, she insists that Francie change the entries in which she wrote that her father was drunk to read that her father was sick. When a seven-year-old child in the neighborhood is sexually attacked and murdered, Johnny borrows a gun from a friend. One day, as Francie enters her apartment building, the prowler is hiding under the stairs and grabs her. Katie sees the man attacking her daughter; she quickly goes back to the apartment and grabs the gun. Katie shoots him in the stomach, and Francie is unharmed. The police doctor gives Francie a sedative and tells Katie and Johnny that when Francie wakes up they are to tell her that it was just a bad dream.
Sissy, whose pregnancies have all ended in the death of her babies, wants a baby desperately. She learns of a young girl who is unmarried and pregnant, and Sissy visits her family one day. Sissy offers to adopt the baby and to provide food for the family during the pregnancy. When the baby girl is ten days old, Sissy brings her new daughter home. She convinces her husband that she has given birth to the baby and that he is the father. Only Katie, Johnny, and Francie know that the baby is not really Sissy’s. Katie is pregnant with their third child, and Johnny is once again not happy at the news.
It is almost Christmas again in chapter 35, and there is even less money than normal and the family is living on oatmeal. One day Johnny comes home crying hysterically because the Waiters’ Union has kicked him out and is demanding that their union pin be returned. Johnny is extraordinarily proud of his union pin and the thought of not having it makes him fall to pieces. Johnny has not worked or contributed money to the support of the family in a very long time. He leaves the apartment the next day and disappears for two days. Finally, police sergeant McShane appears at the door to tell Katie that Johnny has been found unconscious in the street and is dying. The next morning Katie tells the children that their father has died and not to cry. Johnny had $200 in insurance, and the undertaker charges $175, leaving Katie barely enough money to buy mourning clothing for the family. The money from the tin can bank is used to buy Johnny’s burial plot, so the family now owns a tiny plot of land as Katie’s mother has advised.
The doctor at the hospital wants to list alcoholism and pneumonia as the causes of death, but Katie insists that alcoholism not be listed on Johnny’s death certificate. The priest supports Katie, and the doctor lists only pneumonia. When Neeley and Francie refuse to enter the living room of the apartment, where their father’s body is laid out in a casket, Katie tells the children that everyone thinks that they are refusing to see the body because Johnny was not a good father. When Francie goes into the room and views her father’s body, she is surprised at how young and at peace he looks. At the funeral service, Katie is unable to weep, but once they return home Katie begins to weep uncontrollably. Sissy tells her she must stop crying to avoid harming her unborn child.
Johnny’s death is very hard on Francie and Neeley, but Katie says that the family needs to return to their usual customs and so that night they will read a story from the Bible. She chooses the birth of Jesus for that evening’s reading. The new baby is due in May, and Katie is worried about how she can earn enough money to feed the family when she is unable to work as hard as she usually does. She prays to Johnny and asks him to help her. That day, McGarrity, who owns the saloon where Johnny most often did his drinking, offers Francie and Neeley jobs after school.
In chapter 39, the narrative returns to Francie’s schooling. She has been doing poorly in her composition class since the death of her father. After Johnny died, Francie began writing about poverty, drunkenness, and death. The teacher does not like these topics and wants Francie to write about beautiful and nice things, but Francie realizes that all the writing that earned her good grades was about things that she had never experienced. Francie burns all her A compositions, but she keeps the failing papers that her teacher did not like.
When Katie goes into labor, she tells Francie to send Neeley for Evy. When Evy and Sissy arrive, they learn there is no money for a midwife; they will need to deliver the baby. As the birth becomes imminent, Katie insists that Francie be sent from the house to buy food. Katie does not want Francie to hear the sounds of a painful childbirth. The new baby is named Annie Laurie.
Chapter 42, the last chapter in book 3, ends with both Francie and Neeley graduating from elementary school and receiving their diplomas. Their two graduation ceremonies are on the same night, and Katie chooses to attend Neeley’s. Aunt Sissy attends Francie’s graduation. Francie dreads entering her classroom, since each girl receives flowers for graduation, and Francie knows that she will not receive flowers. When she looks at her desk, however, there is a large bouquet of roses on the top of the desk. The card says they are from her father, and it is written in her father’s neat handwriting. For a moment, Francie thinks that the past six months have been a bad dream and that her father did not die, but Sissy explains that Johnny signed the card a year ago and that he gave her the money to buy the roses before he died. At home Katie is pleased with Neeley’s grades, which are Bs and Cs. She ignores all of Francie’s As and focuses only on the one C-minus, in composition.
Book 4 consists of chapters 43–54. These chapters tell of Francie’s teenage years and growing into young adulthood. After graduation, Francie and Neeley both get jobs. Francie wants to work in an office but needs to be sixteen years old to do so. After she buys more grown-up clothing and puts her braids up, Francie looks old enough to pass for sixteen, although she is only fourteen. She gets a job as a reader at the Model Press Clipping Bureau in Manhattan. Francie is very good at her job and is given a large raise. Francie does not want to tell her mother about the raise, since she knows that her mother will want her to keep working instead of returning to school. Although Neeley does not want to go to high school, Katie decides that he is the one who will attend school. Katie claims that Neeley will need to be pushed into school, but Francie will find a way to attend even if she must also work to support the family.
It is now 1917, and Neeley has been playing the piano and singing at the ice cream shop. Unlike his father, who was forced to sing what people requested, Neeley plays only what he wants. Francie is sixteen years old and is still lonely, as she has been all her life. Aunt Sissy finally tells her husband, Steve, that she adopted their baby girl, but he is not upset. It was Steve who told Sissy about the unmarried pregnant girl, who had an affair with a married man. Coincidentally, the baby looks just like Steve.
One of the clipping bureau’s biggest clients turns out to be a German spy, and soon the business is shut down and Francie is out of a job. Francie’s new job pays less money, but it is enough to support the family. Francie knows she will never go to high school, but she wants to sign up for summer college courses. Francie loves college, and a boy she meets in the bookstore, Ben Blake, helps Francie fit in and get used to college. Francie is in love with Ben, but he does not have time for a girlfriend since he takes care of his mother.
The only way Francie can enroll in college for regular classes is to pass the entrance exams, so she begins to study for them. She meets a young soldier, Lee Rhynor, who is about to ship overseas to the war. He tells Francie that he is engaged to a girl back home, but Lee asks Francie to pretend that she is his girl just for the evening. Lee kisses Francie good night. The next day, she and Lee go dancing, and Francie falls in love with Lee as they dance. Lee asks Francie to spend the night with him and says he will not marry his fiance´e back home. Francie refuses, but she agrees to Lee’s request that she write a letter telling him that she loves him. Within a few days, a letter from Lee’s bride arrives thanking Francie for entertaining her fiance´e while he was in New York. The new Mrs. Rhynor says that it was cruel of Lee to pretend to be love with Francie. Francie is brokenhearted. Book 4 ends with the reappearance of Sergeant McShane, who comes to visit the Nolan family. He asks Katie to marry him, and she accepts; he is a good man. McShane asks whether he can adopt Laurie and give her his name, and Katie agrees to this also.
Book 5 consists of chapters 55 and 56 and concludes the novel. As soon as her mother is married, Francie, who has passed her college entrance exams with Ben’s help, will be leaving Brooklyn to attend the University of Michigan. Ben has given Francie a ring, with their two sets of initials engraved on the inside, but he is not pressuring her to make a decision about loving him. He loves her, and he will wait for her to decide. He has another five years before he can finish law school and marry and he is willing to give Francie that long to know what she wants.
In the final chapter of the novel, Francie says goodbye to her neighborhood and to the life the family lived in their apartment. The next day, Katie and Mr. McShane will marry and leave the apartment for good. Francie visits many of the neighborhood stores that she visited in the opening pages of the novel. She also visits her old school and is surprised at how tiny it looks. Francie returns to the apartment, and Neeley comes in looking for a clean shirt to wear to work. He calls her Prima Donna, as Johnny used to, and sings, also just as their father once did. He hugs her goodbye and kisses her. Francie thinks that Neeley is very much like Johnny in appearance and voice. When she is finished packing, Francie prepares for her date with Ben that evening. She admits to herself that she does not love him, but she is willing to give it time and perhaps she will learn to love him. It is the end of her old life and the beginning of a new one.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Betty Smith, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.