A drawn brownstone building on a street in NYC.

About the Book

Title: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn
Published: 1943
Swoonworthy Scale: 7

BFF Charm: Yay
Talky Talk: Straight Up
Bonus Factors: Feminism, History, Brooklyn
Relationship Status: LYLAS

The Deal:

Francie lives with her parents and younger brother in a tenement in early-20th-century Brooklyn. Her mom’s the tough, hardworking daughter of German immigrants, and her father’s the easygoing, charming alcoholic son of Irish immigrants. Francie — not pretty, but bookish and as hardworking as her mother — grows up and finds her own way in the changing world around her. This book’s a classic coming of age novel, and one I never read as a teenager, but I’m glad I finally got around to it!

BFF Charm: Yay

Yay BFF Charm

I had to admire Francie — the girl reads a book a day! The book never says whether they’re long books like The Three Musketeers or shorter ones, but still. That’s impressive. I loved Francie’s independent voice, and really felt for her as she struggled to figure out who she was and what was right for her, especially given her fierce love for her father and the battles she had with her equally strong mother. I also wanted to give a bff charm to her wonderful, loving Aunt Sissy, who married a bunch of different guys and was, in the parlance of the times, a “loose woman” but was the most generous and sweet character (and also sassy) in the whole book.

Swoonworthy Scale: 7

Although the book takes a long time to get around to the swoon, starting when Francie’s 11, the story of her first love is short but super poignant and swoony. I was also impressed by the openness of Katie, Francie’s mom, and willingness to talk about sex. Y’all, this book is super old (first published in 1943, so it’s not QUITE as old as I thought, but it did take place a loooong time ago), and Katie flat-out tells Francie she’d always regret not sleeping with the man she fell in love with, even though they weren’t married. Francie’s head-over-heels first love affair rings so true for a 17-year-old. There’s also a fair bit of swoonage between Katie and Johnny (Francie’s dad).

Talky Talk: Straight Up

This book might be an old-fashioned classic, but Betty Smith doesn’t hide the truth behind lots of prose and euphemisms. She portrays the grinding poverty of Williamsburg more clearly than Dickens, and doesn’t romanticize the harsh conditions of tenement life. The book was scandalous when it was published because of its lack of Horatio Alger moral message and its unshuttered look at sex and human appetites.

Bonus Factor: Feminism

Raised fists in different skin tones wearing nail polish

Francie is growing up before women have the right to vote, but she’s the daughter of a strong woman and has several tough female role models. In fact, the men in the story are all weak compared to the women. Because Francie’s poor, going to work is not a revolutionary feminist act, but by pursuing education she breaks both sex and class barriers.

Bonus Factor: History

Dinosaur skeleton in a museum

I’m a big history nerd, and historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. Yep, I know this isn’t historical fiction exactly, since it’s almost a contemporary account (plus 30 years or so), but it takes place in a really fascinating period of American history — the beginning of the 20th century, when for a poor person reading a page of Shakespeare and a page of the Bible daily was considered getting an education, through WWI and right before prohibition (luckily, we can still have our gin legally, even if the folks during prohibition couldn’t!).

Bonus Factor: Brooklyn

Overhead view of New York City skyline

I’ve never been to Brooklyn, unless we went there during my 8th grade class trip to NYC and I don’t remember (all I remember from that trip is getting in a HUGE fight with my bff, and spending the rest of the year communicating through our other bff — “Kate, tell Rachel I’m not speaking to her”, etc. Luckily, we’re back to being BFFs now). Anyway, Brooklyn is a huge cultural icon, from the bridge to all the annoying MFA writers who live in Park Slope and talk about the borough ad nauseum.

Relationship Status: LYLAS

Love ya like a sister, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. An older, wiser sister who could have mentored me through my own coming of age, and now like a peer as I see similar identity struggles in Francie that I think all of us go through (although I in no way am comparing my white-bread middle-class life to Francie’s). This one’s on my shoulda-coulda-woulda list of books I wish I’d read as a teen, although it was still delightful to read as an adult.

FTC Full Disclosure: I bought my own copy of this book. I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is available now.

Meghan is an erstwhile librarian in exile from Texas. She loves books, cooking and homey things like knitting and vintage cocktails. Although she’s around books all the time, she doesn’t get to read as much as she’d like.