In 1943 Betty Smith’s first novel, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, was published. Somehow it touched a nerve for the people of New York and the country. It sold over 300,000 copies in the first six weeks. Betty Smith said she wrote about “the kind of people I know and the kind of people I like”. Betty Smith wrote about what she knew, her life growing up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, in the beginning of the twentieth century.
Francie Nolan is the heroine of this story. But Brooklyn is the main character. Francie’s Williamsburg neighborhood was a wild place, children were fighting in the street and on the playground. The best place in the world for Francie was the fire escape outside her apartment. It is here that Francie could dream and watch the tree grow outside her window.
The characters that Betty Smith created are ones that will stay with you for a long time. Francis’s mother, Katie Rommely, only wanted to marry the handsome, charming Johnny Nolan and probably, secretly, regretted it for the rest of her life. Johnny Nolan was a fun loving, charming, singing waiter who drank himself to death as his family waited for him to come home at night.
Francie was a better student than her brother, Neely, but it is in Neely that Katie put all her hopes for the future. Katie read to Francie and Neely every night, as her Austrian mother instructed her to do, from the Bible and Shakespeare. It was from these books that Francie learned to dream and to write.
Betty Smith’s writing was incredibly descriptive as she showed us how the people of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, shopped, went to school, worked, ate, drank, went to church, voted and dealt with every human crisis sent their way. Her characters are equally memorable, from the strong and lovable Rommely women to the sweet alcoholic Johnny Nolan but most of all, Francie. Francie was gentle, shy, industrious, bright and resourceful. We lived through her pain, her humiliations, her successes and her sorrow to see her triumph as a strong, determined young woman with a bright future.
It is easy to understand why Betty Smith’s novel touched so many people in 1943 and has continued to intrigue readers sixty years later.