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'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' Review

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Study Guide Betty Smith's first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, became immediately popular when it was published in 1943. The book sold 300,000 copies in the first six weeks after it was published.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is now considered an essential part of American literature. As an indispensable classic, Smith's book appears on reading lists across the country. It has profoundly influenced readers from all walks of life--young and old alike. The New York Public Library even chose the book as one of the "Books of the Century."

Behind the Tale

The background of the story seems simple enough. Betty Smith drew from her own experiences in growing up in Brooklyn to create the character of a tenacious little girl, Francie Nolan. Because Smith wrote about some of the more unsavory aspects of human existence, some critics found the book unacceptable. One Boston woman even wrote a letter to Smith saying that the author of such a book should live in a stable.

For her part, Smith said that she didn't write about the Nolans for any socially significant reason, but because they were "the kind of people I know and the kind of people I like." She wrote about a young girl coming to grips with some of the horrific realities of her life in Brooklyn: death, hunger, pure human hatred, and meanness.
The Saving Grace of the Imagination

Francie's mother, Katie, is the child of immigrants. Like so many others, they came to America to make a better life for their children. When Francie was born, Katie's mother visited her and told her what she must do to help her children succeed.

Katie's mother stressed the importance of reading the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. She also said, "you must tell the children the legends I told you--as my mother told them to me. You must tell the fairy tales of the old country. You must tell of those not of the earth who live forever in the hearts of people--fairies, elves, dwarfs, and such..."

Perhaps the readings and the stories were not the only things that helped Francie to develop such an active imagination, but they became a part of who she was. She was a part of her family history. Smith writes, "She was all these things and of something more that did not come from the Rommelys nor the Nolans, the reading, the observing, the living from day to day." It's that "something" that is in "each soul that is given life--the one different thing such as that which makes no fingerprints on the face of the earth alike."

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