Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn’t fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is an amazing novel, a kind of New York To Kill a Mockingbird. Beginning in 1912 but then flashing back to the early 1900s, it is the story of Francie Nolan, the daughter in a poor family. Her mother, Kate, is determined to get the best for her son, Neely, who is a year younger than Francie. Their father, Johnny, is handsome and funny and flamboyant, and also drinks way too much. And Francie loves to go the library. She’s working her way through the books, from A to Z. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of the Rommely and the Nolan families’ lives, centering on Francie. The title comes from a tree that grows in the yard.

It’s hard to pin-point what’s so great about this novel. I read it 2 years ago, and loved it. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is less compelling than To Kill a Mockingbird, less deep, I guess you would say, but it’s still a classic in its own right, and written much earlier. And it is pretty deep, whatever that actually means.

Betty Smith brings to life the squalor and poverty of Brooklyn, New York, with her elegant prose. She creates wonderful, memorable characters and scenes. I loved reading about the various things that Francie and Neely did to earn a bit of candy money (though obviously, it was kind of sad), and reading about the various eccentricities of everyone in the neighborhood. You can certainly tell that Betty Smith was knowledgeable about Brooklyn; I’m pretty sure this book is based upon her own childhood at the turn of the century, and it shows. It feels realistic.

I also loved the way that school was portrayed. A lot of the kids are awful to one another; even after they go through something, they tease other kids for having the same thing happen to them. The teachers ignore when the children need to use the bathroom, and bullying is rampant. And yet, there are moments of brightness: when the music teacher comes, when Sissy (Francie’s aunt) intercedes for her. Francie actually really does like school.

A thing I found interesting was that even though Manhattan isn’t that far away, it seems so foreign to Francie, a whole other world that she can’t even imagine.

The characters were amazing. Katie, Johnny, Francie, Neely, Sissy…all of them and more felt realistic and were really fun to read about. Francie, particularly. She’s an avid reader much like myself,  “on that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.” I can identify with that, and I would highly recommend A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:

  • if you like historical fiction
  • if you like books set in New York City (Brooklyn)

483 pages.

Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!