A Tree Grows In Brooklyn Summary

Betty Smith

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, opens on a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1912 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Among the tenement houses grows a tree that everyone calls the Tree of Heaven. Eleven-year-old Francie Nolan collects junk with her brother, Neely, to sell for pennies. Francie is the oldest child of Katie and Johnny Nolan. Francie’s imagination offers her respite from the poverty that otherwise defines her life. Katie cleans apartments, and Johnny makes irregular money as a singing waiter because his alcoholism makes it difficult for him to keep a job. But Johnny is talented, an artist, and handsome, and he has earned the admiration of his dreamer daughter, even though his wife is too busy working hard to support the family to have time for such fantasies.

The book then jumps back to 1900, when Johnny and Katie, the teenage children of immigrants from Ireland and Austria, first meet. Johnny’s alcoholism begins when Katie announces she is pregnant with Francine, and continues with the birth of Neely. Katie is determined to give her children a better life, with a focus on education. When Francine is born ill, Katie develops negative attitudes toward her, and though she favors Neely, she resolves to never reveal that to her daughter.

The young family is forced to move twice in the first seven years of the Nolans’ marriage, first because of Johnny’s alcoholism, and then later when Katie’s sister Sissy shames the family. They eventually arrive at the apartment they live in at the start of the book.

Settled into their new home, Francie and Neely enroll in school. The school is poorly funded and overcrowded. Despite her dismal surroundings, Francie enjoys learning and is excited by the prospects that education offers. With Johnny’s help, Francie is transferred to a different, better school. Johnny still struggles, as a parent and as a provider, and Katie continues to step up. In one incident, Katie shoots a would-be rapist and murderer who tries to attack Francie just before her 14th birthday.

Katie reveals to Johnny that she is pregnant once again. This sends Johnny into an alcoholic spiral. He dies due to pneumonia caused by his alcoholism on Christmas Day of 1915. Katie cashes in his life insurance and uses the kids’ odd jobs to make ends meet. Annie Laurie is born in May of 1916, and Francie comes to term with her father’s death as she graduates from grade school.

With no money for high school, Francie and Neely must find jobs. Francie’s first job is at an artificial flower factory, but she then finds better work at a press clipping office after lying about her age. Francie hopes to attend high school, but Katie sends Neely instead. She justifies her decision by concluding that Neely will only learn if he’s forced to, whereas Katie will find her own way to gain an education because she wants to.

The clipping office closes shortly after the United States enters World War I. Francie goes to work as a teletype operator. Francie skips high school, opting instead to take some college-level summer courses. Ben Blake, a neighbor and high school student, helps her with her studies, but Francie fails her college entrance exams. She experiences romantic disappointment, too, after a boy her age pretends to be in love with her. Katie, on the other hand, accepts the proposal of retired policeman and successful businessman Michael McShane.

The final section of the book opens with Francie, now 17, preparing to start classes at the University of Michigan. With Ben’s continued assistance, she’s passed her entrance exams. Ben is also a potential romantic partner. The family prepares to move into Michael’s home, and Francie tours her favorite neighborhood places one last time. Neely has become a successful jazz pianist, and Francie notes how much of her father lives in her brother.

The Tree of Heaven continues to grow, and despite efforts to kill it, the tree has successfully re-sprouted. Another girl plays nearby, and Francie leaves after seeing herself—her struggles and successes and dreams—still alive in that little girl.

The book’s main theme is the need to persevere. We must be tenacious in our attempts to rise about whatever challenges we face. The book argues that survival is possible, even in the harshest of circumstances, and that if you try hard enough you can even thrive.

The Tree of Heaven provides the central metaphor of the novel, and as the book ends, Francie observes the similarities between the tree and her family.

The book was adapted into a film in 1945. Directed by the influential Elia Kazan, the film won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Supporting Actor for James Dunn, and a Special Academy Award for Outstanding Child Actress for Peggy Ann Garner.

The book was also adapted for television and a stage musical, and has been referenced numerous times in a number of popular culture productions.