Monday, May 23, 2011

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Book Review

Author: Betty Smith. Release date: 1943. Publisher:  HarperCollins Publishers Inc. ISBN: B00365QTQK.
Annotation: This classic novel tells the story of Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up in early 20th century Brooklyn. As Francie grows up, she remembers the people who have come and gone from her life, and looks to the future which holds endless possibilities.
Personal thoughts: I have read this novel twice, once when I was about 14, the second time as an adult. Both times I thought it was wonderful. It is truly a classic piece of American literature, but I have met quite a few people who’ve never read/heard of it. It’s definitely a must-read for people who enjoy historical fiction or period novels, but can be enjoyed by all audiences.
Plot summary: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story Francie Nolan and her family growing up in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. The book is divided into five parts. In part one, the reader meets eleven-year-old Francie and her little brother Neeley. Francie and Neeley live with their parents, Johnny and Katie in the tenements of Williamsburg. Johnny Nolan is an alcoholic and Katie works as a house cleaner. Living in utter poverty, Francie and Neeley earn pennies selling scrap metal with other children of the tenements. Part two tells the story of Johnny and Katie’s meeting and falling in love as first generation immigrants. Part three describes the Nolan children as they begin school, as well as the death of Francie’s father from pneumonia. The rest of the book chronicles Francie’s coming-of-age as she and Neely grow up and get jobs to support their family. As Francie’s life appears to have more on the horizon than that of her mother, she can’t help but remember the small apartment in Brooklyn where she grew up.
Review:  Though written almost seventy years ago about a time long since past, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn remains one of the most celebrated and classic coming-of-age tales .The character of Francie Nolan is one many teen girls can identify with: she struggles to find out who she is while coping with her father’s alcoholism, her family’s poverty, and her unfortunate surroundings. Addicted to reading and education, Francie’s unending struggle to better her life has and will continue to inspire many. Betty Smith paints a rich portrait of the characters in the novel, and as they grow, the reader feels connected with their lives. The book is also an excellent look at life in the early 20th century. Smith’s attention to detail is perfect for creating a realistic backdrop for her story. In a way, Brooklyn itself is another character in the novel. Francie’s ability to overcome adversity, essentially becoming the “tree” that grew out of Brooklyn, is what keeps generation after generation interested in reading this wonderful, heartwarming novel.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Reading level: Grade 7+

Similar titles: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes.  
Themes:  Coming of age, New York, Brooklyn, turn of the 20th century, family dynamics, immigration.   
Awards/Reviews:  Classic piece of American literature.   
Series Information: N/A
Discussion Questions:
- What did you learn about Brooklyn and the turn of the 20th century from reading this novel?
- Do you think the Nolans are a happy family? Why or why not?
- What do you think the meaning behind the title "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" is? How does it relate to Francie?
- Do you think this novel is hopeful? Sad? Inspiring?
- How do you think this story compares to other novels about the immigrant experience in America?

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