A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith

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The book was published in the 40s but takes place mostly from about 1912 to 1917.  It shows the U.S. on the cusp of World War I, but also on the cusp of electricity, women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and other changes.  It’s a big story but also a very small story.  It’s the story of Frances Nolan, a girl growing up in poverty with her mother, father, and brother in Brooklyn.  It’s about children sent to sell junk for pennies and haggle with the baker for an extra loaf of stale bread. It’s about picking out penny candy and watching the neighborhood girls dress up to go out on Saturday night.The beloved American classic about a young girl’s coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years.By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

Francie is eleven when the book begins.  She’s smart, reads a book every day from the library, but struggles in a school with abusive teachers.  Her mother, Katie, works endlessly scrubbing floors and cleaning houses to keep the family alive.  Her father, Johnny, is charismatic, a talented singer, and really understands Frances – unfortunately he’s also an alcoholic who barely works and drinks away all his tip money.  One of the things Frances struggles with is the mother she doesn’t like, who is clearly the better role model but doesn’t have time for affection.  Katie also shows a clear preference for Frances’ brother Neeley, while Johnny adores his daughter.

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