At Francie’s birth in chapter 9, Mary Rommely tells her daughter, Katie, that it is important that she read to her children every night, because education is a way to escape poverty. Katie reads a page from the Bible and a page from Shakespeare, and this bedtime reading is the start of the children’s education. Learning to play the piano and learning to love music are also a part of an education, so the piano lessons in chapter 17 also emphasize Katie’s commitment to her children. When Francie starts school in chapter 19, it is an important event for the family. Although Francie is thrilled to finally learn how to read, her first school is a terrible place, where the children are beaten and mistreated. It is Francie who finds a school where she thinks she can get a better education. In chapter 27, as Katie watches her children struggle to drag a large Christmas tree up the steps to their apartment, she suddenly realizes that education will be the only way for her children to have a better life. When Johnny dies in chapter 36, it is more difficult for Francie and Neeley to continue in school, since the family desperately needs the children to work; however, Katie insists that they stay in school and graduate from eighth grade. Because they need the money from Francie’s job, only Neeley is sent to high school, but Francie is able to enroll in college summer school in chapter 48 because of her determination to get an education. In chapter 55, Francie is accepted by the University of Michigan. Through the education won for Francie by the determination of her grandmother and her mother, as well as her own tenacity and hard work, Francie is finally able to escape the poverty of her parents’ lives.
When Neeley is born in chapter 10, Katie admits to herself that she will always love Neeley more than Francie. Katie thinks that she can treat the children the same and that Francie will never know that she is loved less. Of course, Katie is unable to treat the children the same. In chapter 3, Francie wonders why she likes her father best, but the reason is revealed in several chapters of the novel. For example, in chapter 27, Francie makes an elaborate hat pin holder for her mother for Christmas, and Neeley gives each member of the family a candy cane that he bought. Katie makes a greater fuss over Neeley’s gift than Francie’s. Johnny tries to makes up for the lack of extra attention from Francie’s mother. His death in chapter 36 leaves Francie without the one person who has always loved her. In chapter 42, Katie chooses to attend Neeley’s graduation, while Francie attends her graduation with her Aunt Sissy. In one instance, although Francie’s grades are much better than Neeley’s, Katie makes a fuss over Neeley’s grades and chastises Francie for the one grade that is not an A. Katie cannot help loving one child more than the other, but Francie’s knowledge that she is loved less by her mother will affect Francie’s life and the choices that she makes.
After Johnny’s death, Francie is desperately lonely and needs someone to love her. Her need for love results in her falling in love with Lee Rhynor a young soldier, who tells her that he loves her after knowing her less than two days. Because she is desperate to be loved, Francie gives Lee her heart and a promise that she will wait for him to return from the war. Even after he betrays her, Francie continues to think about him. In chapter 56, Francie sums up her great need for love in her assessment of Ben Blake, who has given her a ring. He loves her, but he does not need her, and Francie has learned throughout her life that she must be needed as well as loved.
The opening chapter of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn explains that the tree growing out of the cement in the Nolan’s’ courtyard is a Tree of Heaven. This tree symbolizes the family’s ability to survive all that threatens to tear it apart. This tree grows only in the poorest of neighborhoods and it grows no matter how poor the circumstances. It can thrive in cement and without water or fertilizer; it represents the tenacity and strength of the poor inhabitants of the neighborhood, who survive with little food or money. Like the tree that receives so little care and nourishment, the Nolan family survives and eventually thrives, emerging from extreme poverty to achieve success. Although Johnny does not survive, his widow and his three children survive the most desperate of circumstances. Although they do not always have much food and are often forced to work backbreaking, menial jobs, the family eventually overcomes adversity. In the final chapter of the novel, Francie observes that the Tree of Heaven is still alive. It has been chopped down and the stump has been set on fire, but the tree is not dead. It has sent out a new branch and is surviving. Like the tree, the Nolan family has survived poverty and death and has worked hard to continue to grow.
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.