Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the coming-of-age story of Francie Nolan, whose family struggles with poverty in early twentieth-century Williamsburg. Francie is hardly alone in this: Smith describes how her protagonist attends school with a “great crowd of unwashed” children who, because of their poverty, are often discriminated against by the very people whose job it is to care for them, particularly teachers and doctors. These children are reminders of how many people are excluded from the same American Dream that encouraged their parents or grandparents to leave their ancestral lands. They are also indicators of how many of the problems from the Old World followed immigrants into the New. Johnny Nolan, Francie’s father, for instance, was born to Irish immigrants who fled to New York to escape the potato famine. Though Johnny does not escape the poverty of his forebears, he and his wife, Katie, teach their children how to endure such poverty and retain hope in overcoming it. Through a combination of resourcefulness and a deep appreciation for the little pleasures in life, Francie and her family manage to find happiness in conditions that seem insufferable.
Katie, for instance, teaches her children to be resourceful, a skill that lessens poverty’s blow. While she finds just enough work as a janitor to keep a roof over the family’s heads, Francie and her younger brother, Neeley, go rag-picking in their building every Saturday to bring in additional income. Eleven-year-old Francie and her ten-year-old brother go to Carney, the owner of the local junk business, with the rags, paper, metal, rubber, and other junk that they’ve collected during the week from “the dumbwaiter shelves of the day’s accumulated trash,” as well as the tin foil from cigarette and chewing gum wrappers that Francie finds in the gutters on her way home from school. The children thus learn to find bounty in limited resources. Though this, Smith shows how poverty doesn’t give people the luxury of being wasteful; instead, the poor become gifted in finding value even in objects that others throw away.
Though Francie and Neeley are taunted by other children for rag-picking, they’re proud to earn enough pennies to buy the things they want and to save money. Rag-picking teaches them to be self-reliant and responsible with money. After one trip to Carney’s, they divide sixteen cents—half goes into their bank and they divide the remaining eight pennies between them. Francie enjoys the privileges that money gives her, such as going to the nickel-and-dime store and touching things with the possibility of buying them. Though she is poor, Francie learns that the objects she covets are attainable through thrift and hard work.
Francie’s poverty also teaches her how to find pleasure in simple things, such as food. The family’s relationship with food involves their gleaning pleasure out of the little they can afford, but not feeling so desperate that they think it is impossible to throw anything away.
Francie loves the smell of hot coffee and she enjoys feeling the warmth that the coffee gives off in her cup—warmth that’s often difficult to come by in the Nolans’ chilly flat. At the end of one meal, however, Francie pours the coffee down the sink, to the outrage of her Aunts Evy and Sissy. Katie explains that Francie is entitled to a cup of coffee and that, if it satisfies her more to throw it out, that’s fine. Katie reasons that it’s good for the poor to waste something once in a while, to get the feeling of how it is not to worry about money and having to scrounge all the time. Though her children are poor, she doesn’t want them to internalize desperation as a permanent way of life.
Katie’s tactic helps the children learn to enjoy small joys despite their poverty. One evening, Katie comes in with a bundle of wood, a can of condensed milk, and three bananas and announces that they will have oatmeal again for supper. Francie and Neeley are initially displeased to have another dinner of oatmeal, but they quickly express gratitude for the bananas when they realize, from their mother’s sigh, how hard she has worked to prepare this simple meal for them. To lift the mood, Francie suggests that Katie play the piano while they eat, so that it will feel as though they are in a restaurant. Francie is eager to create the mood of luxury that the family does not typically get to enjoy. They then light the oil stove and reminisce about past Christmases. A meal that the children were dreading thus quickly becomes a happy occasion due to their resourcefulness and ability to take delight in simple pleasures.
By the time Francie is a teenager, the lessons she has learned from growing up poor teach her that happiness is not out of reach, and rather exists in the little things that most people take for granted—“a cup of strong hot coffee when you’re blue,” “a book to read when you’re alone,” or just being with someone you love.
Poverty and Perseverance ThemeTracker
Poverty and Perseverance Quotes in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The one tree in Francie’s yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock […] Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded up lots and out neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts. You took a walk on a Sunday afternoon and came to a nice neighborhood, very refined. You saw a small one of these trees through the iron gate leading to someone's yard and you knew that soon that section of Brooklyn would get to be a tenement district. The tree knew. It came there first. Afterwards, poor foreigners seeped in and the quiet old brownstone houses were hacked up into flats, feather beds were pushed out on the window sills to air and the Tree of Heaven flourished. That was the kind of tree it was. It liked poor people.
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.
Feeling his arms around her and instinctively adjusting herself to his rhythm, Katie knew that he was the man she wanted. She'd ask nothing more than to look at him and to listen to him for the rest of her life. Then and there, she decided that those privileges were worth slaving for all her life. Maybe that decision was her great mistake. She should have waited until some man came along who felt that way about her. Then her children would not have gone hungry; she would not have had to scrub floors for their living and her memory of him would have remained a tender shining thing. But she wanted Johnny Nolan and no one else and she set out to get him.
“Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It's growing out of sour earth. And it's strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way.”
“Aw, somebody ought to cut that tree down, the homely thing.”
“If there was only one tree like that in the world, you would think it was beautiful,” said Katie. "But because there are so many, you just can't see how beautiful it really is.”
Life was going too swiftly for Johnny. He had a wife and two babies before
he was old enough to vote. His life was finished before it had a chance to begin. He was doomed and no one knew it better than Johnny Nolan. Katie had the same hardships as Johnny and she was nineteen, two years younger. It might be said that she, too, was doomed. Her life, too, was over before it began. But there the similarity ended. Johnny knew he was doomed and accepted it. Katie wouldn't accept it. She started a new life where her old one left off. She exchanged her tenderness for capability. She gave up her dreams
and took over hard realities in their place. Katie had a fierce desire for survival which made her a fighter. Johnny had a hankering after immortality which made him a useless dreamer. And that was the great difference between these two who loved each other so well.
As she was about to touch this soft beautifulness, the little girl snatched it away and spat full in Francie’s face. Francie closed her eyes tightly to keep the hurt bitter tears from spilling out. The other girl stood there curiously, waiting for the tears. When none came, she taunted:
“Why don't you bust out crying, you dockle? Want I should spit in your face again?”
Francie turned and went down into the cellar and sat in the dark a long time waiting until the waves of hurt stopped breaking over her. It was the first of many disillusionments that were to come as her capacity to feel things grew. She never liked blackboard erasers after that.
A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the bootstrap
route has two choices. Having risen above his environment, he can
forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion
and understanding in his heart for those he has left behind him in the
cruel upclimb. The nurse had chosen the forgetting way. Yet, as she stood there, she knew that years later she would be haunted by the sorrow in
the face of that starveling child and that she would wish bitterly that she
had said a comforting word then and done something towards the saving
of her immortal soul. She had the knowledge that she was small but she
lacked the courage to be otherwise.
Gently, Teacher explained the difference between a lie and a story. A lie was something you told because you were mean or a coward. A story was something you made up out of something that might have happened. Only you didn't tell it like it was; you told it like you thought it should have been […] Katie was annoyed at this tendency and kept warning Francie to tell the plain truth and to stop romancing. But Francie just couldn't tell the plain undecorated truth. She had to put something to it […] Although Katie had this same flair for coloring an incident and Johnny himself lived in a half-dream world, yet they tried to squelch these things in their child. Maybe they had a good reason. Maybe they knew their own gift of imagination colored too rosily the poverty and brutality of their lives and made them able to endure it. Perhaps Katie thought that if they did not have this faculty they would be clearer-minded; see things as they really were, and seeing them loathe them and somehow find a way to make them better.
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.