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 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.