A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Study Guide

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn By Betty Smith

Francie, her mother Katie, her alcoholic father Johnny, and her bother Cornelius ("Neeley") all live in an tenement apartment in Brooklyn. They are terribly poor, and Francie struggles to keep her optimism and idealism alive in the face of their plight. Francie loves her father, but her mother doesn't get along with her as well.

One Saturday, Francie and Neeley are visiting a junk dealer, selling scraps they've salvaged from their building's trash. They receive a few pennies, which they share between themselves and the family's coin bank. Neeley buys candy, and Francie browses a few stores while clinging to a nickel. They're very very poor.

All of the Nolans have troubles that plague them as they get by from one penny to the next. Aunt Sissy has a scandalous series of 'husbands', Aunt Evy's only husband has awful luck, and so forth.

Francie and Neeley go to a public school that is awful. Francie schemes to get herself reassigned, to a new school in a better place, but fails. She entertains herself by writing short stories, then by joining her brother in piano lessons given by a spinster who lives in the same building.

Johnny gets dismissed from his union because he is a drunk. Aunt Sissy adopts a baby girl, because she has had ten stillborn babies in a row, and then gives birth to a live child of her own. She takes this as a sign to settle down with her current husband (Steve).

Francie's mother gets pregnant for the third time, and shortly after, her husband loses his job because of his alcoholism...and then dies of alcohol-related pneumonia. Katie names her third child Annie Laurie, after one of her husband's favorite songs. Katie convinces the doctor to record 'pneumonia' on Johnny's death certificate instead of the more accurate 'acute alcoholism'.

Francie and Neeley both obtain part-time work, but Francie moves to full-time to help deal with the costs of a new baby sister. This means she'll have to leave school, which perturbs her greatly. She takes summer school at a local college, and meets a man named Ben and a soldier named Lee. They have a relationship even though Lee is engaged. After Lee returns home (he was only on assignment in Brooklyn), Francie writes him a letter only to receive a letter back from Elizabeth, Lee's new wife. The letter apologizes to Francie for Lee's 'pretending' to be in love with her. Crushed, Francie begins a relationship with Ben.

Meanwhile, Katie gets engaged to Sergeant McShane, a retired police officer, who runs for and obtains a position in the local government. Things start to look up. The day before her mother remarries, Francie says goodbye to the tenement, Brooklyn, and poverty. She will probably marry Ben.

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