Women’s History Month: North Brooklyn’s Great Feminist Classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Author Betty Smith in front of the tree that is the symbol of her novel.

Great literature never grows old or feels dated, and no local novel feels more current to local women than Betty Smith’s enduring 1943 classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which describes the coming of age of the protagonist Francie Nolan in the era before World War I in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The novel sold millions of copies and was made into a hit 1945 film, directed by Elia Kazan, starring James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner, who won a Special Academy Award for Outstanding Child Actress of 1945.
The book describes the hard childhood of Francie Nolan growing up in a Williamsburg tenement. Young Francie adores her father Johnny who proved to be little more than a shiftless charming drinker who could not support the family. Francie and her family overcame poverty, but not because of the males in the Nolan family. It’s the novel’s female characters who prove tough and resilient, while the men turn out to be weak and feckless. The women prove to be tough as nails and stronger than the challenges of poverty they face. In the story it is the women who must rely on one another and they are the heroes of the novel. The book’s narrative was unique in its day because it principally focused on the lives of its women.

The tenacious, unattractive tree is the central symbol in the book and Francie resembles the “Tree of Heaven” because she also thrives in the adverse conditions of urban Williamsburg. Francie doggedly pursues her education and aspirations, while ultimately achieving success, despite the limitations of her impoverished environment.

The book was controversial in its day for its unflinching gaze on the seedier side of a young woman’s life in Brooklyn. Smith’s candid portrayal of sexuality, menstruation, sexual violence, alcoholism, and the effects of poverty offended some, but gave the book a realism that made it such a success.

Betty Smith’s life was changed by the time she spent at the Jackson Street Settlement House, an institution for the education and advancement of poor children. She taught sewing Saturday afternoons there and she also acted there in plays for the first time while also learning to dance. However, the most important thing that happened to Smith at the settlement house was meeting her future husband, George Smith, while debating in 1917. Miss Smith, in her last year of High School, fell in love with Smith and later eloped, following him to Ann Arbor, Michigan where he went to school and she began to write. She later authored other works, but nothing ever compared to her classic Williamsburg tale.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over twenty years and is the author of a history of the area Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past.

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