A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

One Sentence Review: “Having an accent means you belong somewhere.” 


Pages: 528  Genre: Historical Fiction / Coming of Age / Classic 
Rating: 5 of 5 dolls named Mary
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.23 of 5 stars
Form Read: ebook   Purchased or Borrowed: Borrowed from the library 

Synopsis from Goodreads: 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.


This book is one of the editions printed by the US Government during World War II as a pocketbook for soldiers to carry with them. It went through multiple printings during the course of the war, and prior to the author’s death, she still received letters from veterans describing what the book meant to them and how it helped them in a time of need. The importance of this book to the war effort is outlined in “When Books Went To War: the stories that helped us win WWII.”

The main theme of the book is one of self and family betterment. It’s improvement over generations, a little at a time. It’s also a book on poverty, growing up, and the little things we take for granted. It’s addiction and how the disease pulls you under.

“A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the bootstrap route has two choices. Having risen above his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion and understanding in his heart for those he has left behind him in the cruel upclimb.” 


The book is well written and told from the perspective of a young girl growing up poor in Brooklyn. I’d believe the author had first hand experience with poverty, judging from how well she writes it. Coming from one of the poorest parts of the country, I hate the way people often portray the poor but Smith does an excellent job showing how as a child you’re ignorant of the fact of being a “have not” until you meet people who are “haves.”

Smith also does an excellent job showing the way communities like that band together but also how they shame members of their group because the idea of “looking down on” is something they rarely get to do, so if someone breaks the strict social rules for that group they are punished.


This book is one of those you read multiple times during your life, and each time you’ll have a different reading experience. The characters are well developed and as you gain more life experience you’ll relate to each of them in a slightly different way. I saw a lot of my younger self in the main character Francie. A hunger for knowledge and to make it out of where you’re from, but the desire never to lose those roots or feel ashamed of them.

“… the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood.” 

The impact of addiction on an individual and the family as a whole is also a major plot point throughout the book. The main character’s father is an alcoholic and you see how it changes him and how his family deals with his disease.

“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing,” thought Francie, “something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains–a cup of strong coffee when you’re blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you’re alone–just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”

Though I originally borrowed this book, I plan on purchasing the ebook so I can read it again in a few years, and see how I have changed reflected in the book.

Find this book on: Goodreads / Amazon / B&N