A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

atreegrowsinbrooklyn     Previously known for her plays “So Gracious in the Time” and “Three Comments on a Martyr”, Betty Smith changed the American literature world with her “fictional” novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith is a coming of age novel  about a girl that encompasses various different hardships in the poverty-stricken borough of Brooklyn during the early 1900’s. This classic American novel published in 1943 immediately drew attention to its author and its content. Published during the middle of the Second World War, Smith attracted various different audiences that related to her book. By the end of 1945, Betty had earned nearly $110,000 just from the sales of more than 3 million copies of her book.

Although considered fictional, Betty Smith composed this novel with various non-fictional experiences from her own life. Reading about Betty Smith’s life experiences allows the reader to see the various sources of inspiration for the events and people in the book even if the book is labeled fiction. What inspired Smith to bring such an ordinary person’s life into a fictional literary realm? While interviews never addressed the subject, various literary critics did. Critics agree that because of the chaotic time period in which the book was published in, the American public accepted and drew towards the conversations of poverty, immigration, the working class, and women. According to C.S Johnson’s Dissertation, He states that the Betty Smith would not have been as successful if the economic and social conditions had not been favorable. Smith’s ability to give the reader different versions of the “American Dream” draws everyone, from the immigrant to the American native.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is told from an omniscient point of view, which allows the audience to see the moral development of the protagonist, Francie, as well as the thoughts of other characters that help shape her development. The narrator brings the reader on a thrilling ride from life before Francie to Francie’s near-end of adolescence age. Smith paints the hardships and experiences of Francie and her family so vividly that the reader cannot hold back their emotions of sorrow, love, and despair for the protagonist. Through these hardships is when Smith weaves in the experiences of poverty, treatment, and living conditions that were faced by early immigrants. Smith also weaves in the social and political conditions of New York in the years prior to World War One. Through Francie the reader begins to understand the historical contexts that were experienced by Betty Smith during her childhood.

Betty Smith encompasses various different important topics that still make her novel favorable and desirous to read years later. Smith’s incorporation of universal literary themes and the symbolism of the ever-famous tree of heaven allows readers to dive into her novel to explore their significance and connections to modern day life. Her ability to place the reader in Brooklyn back in the early 1940’s through the use of vivid word pictures and expressions allow the reader to see life for early immigrants and their families.

– DML

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3 thoughts on “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

  1. Thanks for this post. It’s really no surprise that Betty Smith enjoyed such success in her lifetime. It is a bit of a surprise, however, that so many of her readers were soldiers, fighting in World War II. I have often made the assumption that boys and men would most enjoy books with male protagonists, but dear Francie captivated entire brigades. I can’t say exactly why this was, of course, but I would like to think that it has a lot to do with the fact that Smith wrote truths. As you mention, Smith’s novel is autobiographical and so it is infused with so much personal truth. Such detail as in the scene in which Francie and Neeley take scraps of metal and other items to the “junkie,” a man who comes to life amid the scenery as he pinches Francie’s cheeks, brings Smith’s story alive. In short, Francie’s world is real; it is the world that Smith and many World War II veterans once inhabited; it is familiar and true to all readers.

    -SD

  2. Great post!
    Here are some of the comments that I’d like to make:

    1. I am so curious to read some of her other novels…I wonder: why weren’t the other two as successful as the first? Are they similar in story and style? And how much (if anything) was also inspired by real-life events?
    2. I find it intriguing that you touched on the luck that Smith experienced solely due to the time period in which she composed the novel, in addition to the economical and social circumstances. This begs the question—would she have achieved as much success had the novel been at a later (or earlier) time period? Would people have been able to relate to it as well as they did? Yet…we are reading the novel many years later and can still connect with many of the book’s powerful themes.
    3. How might the novel change if it were told from her mother’s point of view? Or her father’s? Just some food for thought.

    –VM

  3. I truly appreciate each posting, for they all touch on profound facts about the novel and its back story, and I am particularly humored to learn from DML how “various” “differences” can be. 😉 But on a less humorous note, I was equally drawn to the history behind the making of the book as I was with the reading of it. I personally found much of the success of the novel to lie with the author’s writing craft; her style is so eloquent, poetic, descriptive and emphatic. She takes you there–to the Williamsburg, Brooklyn of the early 1900s. She takes you on that journey through perspective of a curious and observant emerging adolescent female. Moreover, as SD reminds us, there is a richness in the historical context that is presented in the novel that seems to either make readers of that time relate, or allows readers of today to envision. I believe that though the text is hefty in length, young adult readers would learn to appreciate a story that is not interested in rushing to a climax and a conclusion, but rather takes the time to hash out the events in Frannie’s life so as to allow readers to form a relationship with the story and embrace the lessons it has in store for its readers.

    -JES

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