Betty Smith’s protagonist, Francie Nolan, is an eleven-year-old girl who is curious about the world but shut out from much of it due to poverty. It is her grandmother, Mary Rommely, who insists that her own daughter, Katie, start a library for Francie. According to Mary, the most essential reading consists of the Protestant Bible, Shakespeare, and German fairy tales. Books, she says, inspire imagination, which will encourage Francie to think beyond her current circumstances. Mary’s advice proves to be right: education helps Francie push beyond the parameters of Williamsburg and beyond the expectations for a girl of her class. Her drive to improve herself through scholasticism is exemplary of the American Dream, which claims to reward ambition and merit over lineage.
The world opens up for Francie when she learns to read. Soon after, stories become a means of escape and a way to create the friendship and sense of belonging that she doesn’t otherwise have. Francie doesn’t only read stories but also creates her own out of mundane experiences. Storytelling becomes her means for making sense out of the world and feeling more connected to it.
She seeks out books for every mood—poetry “for quiet companionship” and adventure stories for when she tires of quiet hours. She figures that she will take more interest in romances and read biographies “when she [wants] to feel a closeness to someone.” Francie’s ravenous appetite for books nourishes an interest in the world beyond her Brooklyn neighborhood. Reading also helps her generate personal discipline; she promises herself that she will read one book a day as long as she lives, ensuring that she will always feel a part of the world that seems so distant from her in real life.
Francie uses her love of literature to also develop a passion for mathematics. She relates more easily to abstract numbers by creating stories for them. She devises a game in which she thinks of numbers as members of a family and variables as sweethearts who complicate life for the family, or boyfriends who cause trouble. Francie’s “game” makes arithmetic “a warm and human thing” that she can use to occupy her time and, perhaps, forget about the sorrows within her own family by finding cohesion within the numbers.
Francie seeks this sense of cohesion not only within her own household but also in Brooklyn. Reading gives her the opportunity to create herself, and part of what she seeks to create is a deeper sense of rootedness in her country and her community. For this reason, it becomes imperative for Francie to leave her first school, which is filled with the poor children of immigrants and the teachers who openly despise them, and instead enroll in a school filled with Americans who “could not be bulldozed and exploited as could the immigrants and second-generation Americans.” This decision, which occurs to Francie as an epiphany, is the first step that she takes on her own in improving her circumstances and getting closer to her family’s wish to achieve the American Dream.
While walking through an unfamiliar, suburban Brooklyn neighborhood one Saturday in October, Francie sees “a little old school” whose “old bricks glowed garnet.” There is grass on the school grounds instead of cement, and the territory across from the school is “practically open country.” The “open country” implies that there is space for her to grow here, unlike in her old neighborhood. Francie’s sense that the bricks glow like a precious stone further indicates how she has idealized the school, seeing it as a place of opportunity and assimilation.
She admires how the neighborhood at this school is “peopled by fifth and sixth generation Americans,” descended from families that “had been Americans for more than a hundred years back” and “were mostly [of] Scotch, English and Welsh extraction.” These origins, which were common among most of the original European settlers, make these residents seem more typically American. Their old houses “had been standing there when Washington maneuvered his troops across Long Island.” The people in this neighborhood have the sense of belonging that is more tenuous in Francie’s old school, where everyone seems to have one foot in their old country and the other in the new. By convincing her parents to let her leave the old school and fake her address so that she can attend this new one, Francie establishes herself more firmly in her community as someone who belongs and deserves the same opportunities as those who have been there for generations.
Francie’s determination culminates in her enrolling in classes at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, despite the fact that she has not yet earned a high school diploma. The “open country” across from her new school in the unfamiliar Brooklyn neighborhood thus foreshadows her eventual departure from Brooklyn in favor of even newer and more unfamiliar territory in the Midwest.
Education and the American Dream ThemeTracker
Education and the American Dream Quotes in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Francie, huddled with other children of her kind, learned more that first day than she realized. She learned of the class system of a great Democracy. She was puzzled and hurt by teacher's attitude. Obviously the teacher hated her and others like her for no other reason than that they were what they were. Teacher acted as though they had no right to be in the school but that she was forced to accept them and was doing so with as little grace as possible. She begrudged them the few crumbs of learning she threw at them. Like the doctor at the health center, she too acted as though they had no right to live. It would seem as if all the unwanted children would stick together and be one against the things that were against them. But not so. They hated each other as much as the teacher hated them. They aped teacher's snarling manner when they spoke to each other.
OH, MAGIC HOUR WHEN A CHILD FIRST KNOWS IT CAN READ PRINTED WORDS! […] From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and
when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography.
On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.
Francie was out walking one Saturday in October and she chanced on an unfamiliar neighborhood. Here were no tenements or raucous shabby stores. There were old houses that had been standing there when Washington
maneuvered his troops across Long Island […] She walked on further and came to a little old school. Its old bricks glowed garnet in the late afternoon sun. There was no fence around the school yard and the school grounds were grass and not cement. Across from the school, it was practically open country—a meadow with goldenrod, wild asters and clover growing in it. Francie's heart turned over. This was it! This was the school she wanted to go to. But how could she get to go there? […] Her parents would have to move to that neighborhood if she wanted to go to that school. Francie knew that Mama wouldn't move just because she felt like going to another school. She walked home slowly thinking about it.
One delves into the imagination and finds beauty there. The writer,
like the artist, must strive for beauty always […] Drunkenness is neither truth nor beauty. It’s a vice. Drunkards belong in jail, not in stories. And poverty. There is no excuse for that. There's work enough for all who want it. People are poor because they're too lazy to work. There's nothing beautiful about laziness.
She looked towards the window. Yes, across two yards she saw a little
girl sitting on a fire escape with a book in her lap and a bag of candy at hand. The girl was peering through the bars at Francie […] She was a slender little thing of ten, and her name was Florry Wendy […] She looked down into the yard. The tree whose leaf umbrellas had curled around, under and over her fire escape had been cut down because the housewives complained that wash on the lines got entangled in its branches […] But the tree hadn't died […] A new tree had grown from the stump and its trunk had grown along the ground until it reached a place where there were no wash lines above it. Then it had started to grow towards the sky again. Annie, the fir tree, that the Nolans had cherished with waterings and manurings, had long since sickened and died. But this tree in the yard—this tree that men chopped down … this tree that they built a bonfire around, trying to burn up its stump—this tree lived! It lived! And nothing could destroy it.