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Literature: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
1943 American novel by Betty Smith about Francie Nolan, a girl growing up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the 1900s and '10s. It draws significantly on Smith's own experiences, dealing with poverty, vice, and issues of class, education and immigrant status.

The book was a huge bestseller when it was published, which is notable because of its frank and sympathetic treatment of sex (especially women's sexuality) and other then-controversial subjects.

Notable adaptations: the 1945 Film of the Book directed by Elia Kazan with Oscar-winning performances by James Dunn as Johnny and Peggy Ann Garner as Francie; and a 1951 Broadway musical, which Betty Smith helped George Abbott adapt from her book, unsuccessful despite very good songs by Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields and Shirley Booth's show-stealing portrayal of Cissy (as Sissy's name was spelled in this version).

This novel provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Thomas Rommely (who "never forgave" any of his children for marrying and greeted them with "Gott verdammte!" [basically the German equivalent of "God damn you!"]); Johnny's mother (possessive, yet not affectionate) and whose reaction to the birth of her grandchild is to wail "Now she's got you good. You'll never come back to me." Katie kind of counts too, for her favoritism of Neely, which Francie picks up on.
  • A-Cup Angst: Francie angsts over how skinny and underdeveloped her body is when she's going through puberty. Later on, she notices something's changed about her body while she's in the bathtub.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The 1945 movie only goes as far as Francie's graduation from eighth grade, and Katie agreeing to marry Mr. McShane, and cuts some other stuff as well.
  • Alcoholic Parent: Johnny.
    • Played with though: While Johnny's drinking is destructive and ultimately kills him, he's always portrayed as a quiet, introspective drunk, instead of a belligerent, abusive one. On the other hand, when he's sober, he tends to act as if he's drunk.
  • All Men Are Perverts: When Francie gets sexually harassed on the subway, Sissy claims it's just because she's getting a nice figure and men can't help themselves.
  • Attempted Rape: When Francie is a preteen. Katie rescues her by shooting the attacker.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Sissy flashes a "Chicken Inspector" badge at the illiterate Italian family to get them to let her into the house.
  • Betty and Veronica: For Johnny, choosing between Katie (Veronica) and Hildy (Betty).
  • Big Applesauce
  • Black Bra And Panties: Francie buys a set of black lace underwear, hoping her mother will disapprove. She doesn't.
  • Book Dumb: Nearly all the adult characters, who haven't had the benefit of much education (or any, in the case of Sissy and Mary, who Never Learned to Read).
  • Book Ends: By the end of the book, Francie is moving away from her old neighborhood, but many details from its introduction are mentioned, down to a girl who sits on the fire escape reading, like Francie used to.
  • Brainy Brunette: Francie.
  • Break the Cutie
  • Brooklyn Rage: Subverted. When the Christmas tree vendor shouts at Francie and Neeley to get the hell out of his sight, she knows he's not actually angry at them - it's just his way of wishing them a merry Christmas.
  • Brutal Honesty: Katie has this trait and so do her children.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Johnny buys a gun to protect his family from a sexual predator. Someone uses it a few pages later for that exact purpose.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: McShane, who is first introduced about halfway through the book. He starts being important about 10 pages from the end.
    • The film version does a better job of making him important, having him be the neighborhood cop, and doing things such as investigating when Sissy steals a neighbor's skates for Francie, taking Johnny home when he's drunk, helping the children with the Christmas tree (and bringing by candy canes later), and standing silently behind everyone at Johnny's funeral. We also see his feelings for Katie take on a form of Courtly Love, which he doesn't do anything about until after both his wife and Johnny have died.
  • Chinese Launderer: Where Francie takes her father's shirts. See Inscrutable Oriental.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Since the Nolans' ancestors are Austrian and Irish everyone in the family is Catholic, and their religion plays a major role in the story.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Hildy O'Dair, Katie's ex-best-friend who she stole Johnny from.
  • Coming-of-Age Story
  • Cool Loser: Francie is a loner, and doesn't have any girl-friends. She's shocked when the other girls in her grade write fond things in her yearbook and ask her to come to the same high school as them on graduation day.
  • Cool Teacher: Francie has a few to make up for the Stern Teachers she has otherwise.
  • Daddy's Girl: Francie to Johnny.
  • Dark Reprise: The last verse of "Molly Malone." Johnny sings it when he comes home late at night, and Francie always tries to get the apartment door open before he can reach this verse.
  • Dastardly Whiplash: The plays Francie goes to see have villains of this variety. As she grows up she finds it harder to enjoy them because of the lack of realism, and even thinks it would be smarter of the typical Damsel in Distress heroine to just marry the villain as he wants, because he's at least nearby and willing, whereas her supposed true love apparently has better things to do and only returns in time to perform the heroic rescue.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Neeley, who looks exactly like Johnny and has all of his good traits without his bad ones.
  • Determinator: Katie, who passes this trait on to Francie.
  • Disappeared Dad: Johnny and Willie Flitman.
  • Dreadful Musician - Willie until he gets better and the boy whose mother got him an instrument because she believed it would keep him off the front lines.
  • Education Mama: Mary Rommely tells Katie that if she wants her children to rise in the world, one of the things she must do is read them one page a night from The Bible and the complete works of William Shakespeare. Katie tries her best, and it does have an effect.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Neeley's real name is Cornelius, after a character from Julius Caesar. He hates being called by it and insists on going by Neeley.
    • He doesn't hate it so much as due to the custom of Brooklyn kids giving each other nicknames, he's immediately called Neeley.
  • Foreshadowing: Three months after Francie's birth, Katie finds that she has no milk left to nurse...because she is now pregnant with Neeley. Neeley is "leeching" the nourishment that Francie needed — especially since she is a weak, sickly child. The infant Francie just has to toughen up and cope, setting up a pattern that continues as the children grow up. Neeley receives the lion's share of the limited affection and opportunity that their mother gives them, even when Francie logically deserves it more.
  • Four Girl Ensemble: "The Rommely women": Katie is practical and hard-working, Evy is a bit of a Deadpan Snarker and aspires to a "refined" lifestyle, and Sissy is a tender Good Bad Girl. Their sister Eliza is described as having been rather dull, having joined a convent, and is barely mentioned, so the fourth corner is really filled by first Mary, their saintlike mother, and later Francie herself.
  • Frothy Mugs of Water: In-universe — when Katie reads Francie's diary, she insists that Francie sanitize all of the (frequent) references to her father's drinking by replacing the word "drunk" with "sick."
  • Generation Xerox: Francie and Neeley essentially grow up to be like the parent of their respective genders.
  • Good Bad Girl: Sissy is described in the page quote. One of her lovers even tells her, "You got a heart of gold." One chapter also tells of a neighborhood girl named Joanna, who was always nice and friendly, but is ostracized and abused after she has a baby out of wedlock.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Katie didn't want to get pregnant the second time, but she refuses an abortifacient and has Neeley.
  • Gratuitous French: Francie and Neeley jokingly use some around Katie, who doesn't know any.
  • Groin Attack: Katie shoots a pedophile in his exposed groin when he tries to go after Francie.
  • Growing Up Sucks: And how!
  • Hates Everyone Equally - Thomas Rommely
  • Hope Sprouts Eternal: The tree of the title (the Tree of Heaven), which is a metaphor for the hardiness and potential for growth of the people of Brooklyn.
  • Hot Scoop: Francie after she gets a job working for a news bureau (but see I Am Not Pretty).
  • Inscrutable Oriental: Subverted. Francie thinks this of the "Chinaman" who does her father's laundry, but it turns out he never says anything simply because he barely speaks English.
  • I Am Not Pretty: Francie believes this about herself, but this turns out to be untrue, based on the number of men who seem interested in her when she grows up.
  • Ignorant of Their Own Ignorance
  • Immigrant Parents: Or grandparents, to be accurate. Francie stands out in that she's the only student in her class whose parents were actually born in America.
  • It's All Junk: Francie's school compositions, which all earned A's because she imitated the books she'd read and wrote Purple Prose about beautiful subjects, none of which she had ever experienced firsthand. After Johnny's death, she begins writing grittier, more realistic, but still compassionate things about him, which her teacher criticizes as "ugly." Rejecting this idea, Francie realizes that her old essays were shallow and meaningless, and she burns them in the stove.
    • The film alludes to this when Katie is in labor and asks Francie to read one of her compositions; Francie claims she burned all of them, but Katie gently rebukes, "No, you didn't"; when she does read one of them, it's one of the later ones, about Johnny.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Sissy reminisces at one point about how nice her figure was when she was younger. Note that she apparently still is a looker, since men still seem to want her as much as ever (and that's after she's had ten children, mind).
  • Kids Are Cruel: Not so much to Francie and Neeley once they get to school (they're cruel to other kids) but before she gets to school, Francie was a loner because the other children ignored her.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Sissy wants nothing more than to be a mother, but she has one stillbirth after another. Finally she gives up and adopts the illegitimate baby of an Italian girl, insisting to everyone that she was pregnant and gave birth naturally. Soon afterwards, she has a healthy child of her own.
    • Her healthy birth is justified after all her stillbirths though, as it's the first child she gave birth to in a hospital and the modern medical techniques used save the child who would have otherwise succumbed to the same fate as his brothers and sisters.
  • Leave the Two Lovebirds Alone: Francie has to shoo Neely out of the room so Katie and McShane can have a tender moment.
  • Love Martyr: Katie to Johnny. The narration notes that if she'd married a man who felt this way about her, the family would have been a lot better off.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Sissy tells Katie that the illegitimate baby she adopted (see above) actually looks remarkably like her husband. Katie insists that's just her imagination, but then asks her if she ever did find out who the baby's father was. Sissy admits that she didn't, but recalls that her husband was the one who told her about the pregnant girl in the first place. Then she muses that her husband always did say he'd never be willing to adopt another man's child....
  • Mama Bear: Katie when the pedophile comes after Francie. Getting the gun in the first place was a Papa Wolf move on Johnny's part.
  • Marital Rape License: Discussed. See Sour Prudes.
  • Meaningful Funeral: Johnny's.
  • Metaphorically True: Inverted. Francie claims her name is Mary to get a doll being donated to a "poor little girl" of that name, after all the actual Marys refuse to come forward. When she wants to take it for her confirmation name, she discovers that she was christened Mary Frances.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Francie wants to become a playwright.
  • Must Have Caffeine: All the Nolans drink very strong coffee almost constantly.
    • Though it did take Francie a few years to learn to like it.
  • My Beloved Smother: Johnny's mother, who is incredibly possessive of her sons.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: Repeatedly.
  • New Transfer Student: Francie, after she switches schools to a better one in a different neighbourhood.
  • No Periods, Period: Averted (albeit euphemistically) — Francie gets her period for the first time in the middle of a Heroic BSOD triggered by seeing the women stone Joanna, and she thinks her heart has literally broken and she's bleeding to death.
  • Officer O'Hara: Sergeant McShane.
  • Office Romance - The boss of the newspaper Francie works for marries the Head Reader which is how Francie gets the job.
  • Oh, and X Dies: Johnny.
    They were the pride of Shantytown, the tall, blond, good-looking Nolan lads. They had quick feet in shoes that were kept highly polished. Their trousers hung just so and their hats set jauntily on their heads. But they were all dead before they were thirty-five — all dead, and of the four, only Johnny left children.
  • Older Than They Look: Both Francie and Neeley, which gets them jobs when they're really too young to be working, but need to for the money. Francie goes to college and has a boyfriend when she's only fourteen.
  • Oops I Forgot I Was Married: Sissy. Twice.
  • Parents as People: This is a multi-generational story.
  • Parent with New Paramour: Katie marries Sergeant McShane after Johnny dies, once Francie and Neeley are more or less grown up.
  • Parental Favoritism: Katie with Neely. In an inversion of the trope, Francie seems to prefer her father over her mother.
  • Plucky Girl: Francie, of course. Katie was one herself when she was younger (see Determinator).
  • Rage Against the Heavens: When her father dies, Francie breaks down in tears and blames God for his death.
    Francie: Jesus wouldn't go around punishing people. He knew about people.
  • Rags to Riches: The entire story, although it takes a while.
  • Really Seventeen Years Old: Francie has to lie about her age in order to get her first job, and also when she starts dating Ben and has to confess about it (he's19 when she's 15). However, being a Nice Guy, he doesn't mind and lets her know he's willing to wait until she grows a little older.
  • Reformed Rakes: Katie marries Johnny because he's romantic and dashing, then tries to make him a reliable husband.
  • Sadist Teacher: Nearly all of them, including the principal who apparently likes to whip little boys. There are a few Cool Teachers though, and they have a big impact on Francie.
    • To the point that she transfers to a different school several blocks away in order to have a chance at some better teachers.
  • Science Marches On: The eponymous tree is now widely considered annoying, invasive, and stinky, as well as a sign of abandonment and urban decay.
  • Serial Spouse - Sissy
  • She Is All Grown Up: Happens to Francie a few times, including when a man gropes her on the train. Katie herself realizes this about Francie when she not only calls her "Mother" instead of "Mama", she confides that she almost slept with Lee, and as such, responds to her both as a woman and also as her mother.
  • She's Got Legs: Francie observes that her boss' mistress has very nice legs and concludes that this is the reason he finds her attractive.
  • Shrinking Violet: Francie, though she has Hidden Depths and begins to come out of her shell as she grows up.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: All the Rommely women.
  • Smoky Gentlemen's Club: Democratic Party headquarters, which Francie catches a glimpse of. The political corruption of the day is a recurring theme.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Katie is pregnant with Laurie when Johnny dies. It's implied that learning there was another baby on the way contributed to his death.
  • Sour Prudes: The story is pretty heavy on the "women treat each other worse than men treat women" idea, with the obvious example being the neighborhood women who harass and eventually stone a girl who has a baby out of wedlock. The narration explains how miserable these women's marriages are. Also, the baby's father initially wanted to marry her, but his female relatives talked him out of it.
  • Stocking Filler: Sissy, which suits her role as a Good Bad Girl.
  • The Storyteller: Francie, by way of Johnny.
  • Stigmatic Pregnancy Euphemism
  • Too Much Alike: Katie and Francie.
  • Tragic Dropout: Francie is forced to drop out and get a job to help support the family. She is furious at her mother for making her do it instead of her brother Neely, as he doesn't even like school. Her mother explains that it is exactly why she made the choice she did - if Francie drops out, she'll find a way to go back for her education when she can. If Neely did, he would never go back.
  • Turn Out Like His Father: Played half straight — Katie loves Neeley for the ways in which he's like Johnny, but hopes and prays he won't inherit the bad as well as the good, and tries to raise him to be the man Johnny should have been.
  • The Unfavourite: As soon as Neeley is born, Katie realizes that she loves him more than Francie, mostly because she can transfer all her dying dreams for Johnny to him. However, she does her best to hide it, and we only feel the occasional twinge from Francie's point of view.
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: Sissy hides a bottle of whiskey in her bustier and gives it to Johnny, who's trying to detox.
  • A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: Lee, the army major whom Francie meets and tries to get her to commit adultery with him. Luckily, she doesn't.
  • A World Half Full
  • World War One: The war is breaking out at the end of the book, when Francie is a teenager.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Katie's attempts to read Shakespeare to her children despite having a grade school education.
  • You Have to Have Jews: Although none of the major characters are Jewish (which is something of an aversion of this trope), Jews do appear as minor characters on quite a few occasions. Several of them regard Gentiles with scorn, either openly or behind their backs.
  • World War I
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: Starts on the first page

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius Literature of the 1940sTrixie Belden
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alternative title(s): A Tree Grows In Brooklyn
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