Feminist Classics: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

4th Feb 2015

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
A coming-of-age novel set in Brooklyn, New York in the early 1900s, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was written by Betty Smith in 1943. Still widely read by young women in the U.S., it's rarely seen on lists of classic feminist books. Here's why it's time that that changed...

As a young adult novel, it’s somewhat off the scholars’ radar, and as an older book, its feminism is subtler and more subversive than that of modern young adult sensations like The Hunger Games.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of Francie Nolan, a second-generation American girl. Francie’s parents are poor and uneducated.

Her alcoholic father Johnnie (an Irish American) works intermittently as a singing waiter and her mother Katie (whose parents came from Austria) is a cleaner.

The family (which includes Francie’s little brother Neeley) lives in a succession of tenements in bad neighborhoods and gets by on day-old bread and bad cuts of meat from the local butcher.

Francie and Neeley augment the family’s income by scavenging for junk metal to sell to the local scrap dealer. Neeley likes to run wild with the neighborhood boys while Francie haunts the library.

The book jumps back and forth in time, telling the story of Johnny and Katie’s courtship and early days together, then continues through Francie’s young life until she reaches adulthood.

Smith may be telling a classic immigrant tale for a young female audience, but she doesn’t flinch from frank discussions of sexuality, menstruation, sexual violence, alcoholism, and the effects of poverty.

Her female characters are central to the story and are strong and resilient. Her male characters are peripheral; they are weak-willed, immoral, and debilitated by illness. It is the women who demonstrate strong relationships with one another, while the men drift off into aimlessness.

Women must rely on one another because men are often absent or untrustworthyMost of the narrative involves episodes in the lives of the women, while the men (with a few exceptions) pop in and out to father babies, cause trouble, or bring disappointment.

Smith’s message is clear: Women must rely on one another because men are often absent or untrustworthy. All these factors brought controversy when the book was released, though it was an immediate commercial success.

Despite the criticism, readers especially loved Francie’s continued courage and optimism in the face of adversity – a message that never loses its appeal with the mainstream, while also providing much of the book’s feminist subtext.

Brooklyn in the early twentieth century was an unpleasant place to be female. Francie’s victories, while less flashy than those of modern feminist icons, are just as real.

Much of the book details the petty indignities that the women take for granted, from small things to large: Francie endures a weekly cheek pinch from the junkman in order to get an extra penny for their scrap metal.

Later, Neeley, an indifferent student, is allowed to go to high school, while Francie, the avid reader, must leave school and go to work.

Francie’s skills are about avoidance and adaptation. She doesn’t challenge authority or lead the revolution. Instead she deftly dodges all incoming salvos, skillfully leveraging her intelligence and her female support system to stay out of trouble and maintain her spirit and her soul.

The book’s message is about alternate ways of surviving, about secret strength, and the force of women as a unit. In a world where we can’t all be Katniss Everdeen, it’s a message that still resonates.