Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

A tree grows in Brooklyn

A tree grows in Brooklyn

Betty Smith
For ages 14 and up
HarperCollins, 2011   ISBN: 978-0060736262

Francie Nolan lives in the slums of Brooklyn in New York city with her brother Neely and her mother and father. Her mother, Katie, works hard to provide for her family by cleaning, and by being a janitress in the building in which she lives. Francie’s charismatic and handsome father is a singing waiter. He tries to do the best that he can to provide for his family, but unfortunately Johnny Nolan has a vice that he cannot seem to beat – he drinks too much. Francie knows that her father cannot be relied upon, but she cannot help loving him with all her heart. Calling her his “Prima Donna,” Johnny makes Francie feel special and loved, something her mother cannot seem to do for her daughter.

Life in the tenements is hard, for the Nolans are very poor. Katie is very good at making meals using stale bread, and every penny is stretched as far as it will go, but there are still times when the Nolans go hungry. There is one thing that Katie insists on though. She reads to her children from the bible and from a big book of Shakespeare’s works, and she saves as much money as she can so that she will one day be able to buy “a bit of land.” She hopes that an education will give her children opportunities that she did not have, and she does what she can to make sure that Francie and Neely stay in school for as long as possible.

The family muddle along somehow and then Johnny's drinking finally catches up with him and he dies. Johnny was not a very good provider, but his intermittent paychecks did make a difference and without them Katie is not sure how she is going to manage. Will she have to take her children out of school?

This remarkable portrait of a family and of life in New York City in the early 1900’s was first published in 1943. Readers will be able to follow Francie’s life from the time when she was just a baby to the days when she begins to make her own way in the world as a young woman who is determined to get an education, and who has dreams and hopes which are far removed from the tenements where she grew up. Betty Smith does not gloss over what it was like to live in Brooklyn in those days, and readers are not spared many images of the cruel and bleak reality of what it is like to live a life of poverty. At the same time we are given touches of beauty and hope that are rich and special.

Full of colorful descriptions of tenement life, and rich with vibrant characters, this is a book that readers will come back to again and again, finding something new to appreciate every time they read it.