A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Historicity in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
In the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith sets the scene historically for what is to unfold through place, time references, events, and people. The book covers the time period 1912 – 1919, seven crucial years which completes the bridge or development from pre-teen to adulthood. History is linear; hence chronological. However, in this novel, Betty Smith starts in the middle retraces her steps to the beginning when Frances Nolan’s parents meet around 1900, and then proceeds from there until the end. History is not only factually based; it is an individual experience. Smith gives us history in the point of view of the protagonist, Frances Nolan who grows from a girl to a woman, living bitter and sweet experiences in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. Smith employs politics, entertainment, places, inventions, and businesses to establish location in a historical context, in specific Williamsburg is the prime location from which the story issues; therefore, the central plot is based in this area in a crucial interval of history in the early 1900’s where America undergoes rapid changes.
The climactic historical event in the entire novel is World War I (1914-1919) where presidents, politics, and war policies prevail. During WWI, Smith makes some poignant allusions through the characters to give a sense of what was unfolding and how the American public felt in time of war. President Woodrow Wilson is a political figure in this novel. He steers America through the tumultuous years of WWI. He tries to negotiate peace among warring countries; however, he is inevitably drawn into the conflict and on April 06, 1917, declares war (Howard 102). Elected twice, first on 1912 and again in 1916, the characters echo Wilson’s voice as they converse about political events and their hopes that America will be kept out of the war (Smith 312). Wilson even has a street in New York in homage to his name with America embattled in war against the Germans. One witnesses the general anti-German sentiments in America when the street name was changed from Hamburg Avenue to Wilson Avenue (Smith 444). Two name changes in the novel reflects America’s inimical relationship with Germany and is a vegetable name swap and a German descendant’s decision to change his name. Sauerkraut’s modification to the Liberty Cabbage americanizes the vegetable and eliminates the former German name that it carried before. An individual stands before a judge of German heritage as well and affirms his decision to change his name officially from Schultz to Scott – a more American name (Smith 347). Scott makes this decision during WWI.
Politics continue to be burning issue in the lives of New York’s residents during wartime and positions time in a definite framework. Patrick McCarren, a prominent Democratic New York politician, stimulated and urged the building of Williamsburg Bridge, historic because until 1924, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Patrick McCarren (1847-1909) who has left to his legacy a park titled McCarren Park. It was named in his honor in 1909 when he died and in 1910, the New York Board of Alderman, renovated and updated the park (McCarren Park). The park is a place where the children develop and spend many fun times during their childhood and teen years. Neeley picks flowers for his girlfriend in the park where tulips and willows grow.
The entertainment industry is another time signifier which points an accurate finger to time development and history. Frances Nolan mentions her predilection for a theater show, War Brides, released in 1915, starring (Alla Nazimova) (Smith 409). Alla Nazimova was renowned for her role in the theatrical play on Broadway. This play was an American favorite and marked the springboard to her career. Ironically, this actress’ last name is a bold allusion to Nazi Germany against whom the Americans will be fighting in WWII. The term war bride is a term applied to married women who choose to marry soldier especially during WWI and WWII so the historical context, the play on Broadway, and the political life all harmonize. The mention of the entertainment industry on Broadway also helps put a finger on time’s location in the novel and in history as well. Frances recalls a moment when she visited a vaudeville house to see the French actress, Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) who had an amputated leg, was over 70, and yet continued acting and touring throughout America (Smith 409).
This information is more than sufficient to give the reason a historic notion of time. Sarah Bernhardt had a series of falls during rehearsals and plays which affected her leg and which over time developed gangrene. By 1915 when Bernhardt was 71, she had to undergo an amputation procedure on her right leg (Arthur 151). Consequently, she was confined to the wheelchair for the rest of her life. She bravely makes an American tour and plays in New York theaters in 1917 (Arthur 154). Frances also mentions seeing “Galsworthy’s Justice in Broadway by Barrymore” (Smith 409). John Galsworthy (1867-1933) produced a play called Justice and the biography of John Barrymore (1882-1942) reports that he moved to New York in January 1917 to play in Galsworthy’s plays (Morrison 55). Charlie Chaplin is another actor whose silent movie films generated much publicity especially in 1914 in New York with his plays in the years leading up the WWI (Smith 409). Charles “Charlie” Chaplin was a British actor who produced many plays and travelled to America starting from 1910 (Chaplin 125). Chaplin was renowned for his slapstick humor and mime therefore it is not surprising that the Nolans are fans of his as well.
Technological advancement awes Frances Nolan and other characters in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. From the beginning of the 20th century, inventions were released and commercialized. This time marks America’s Post Modernist period where the industrial era meets the technology. Humanity’s scientific progress marches in tandem with Frances’ growth and maturity. As a bildungsroman novel, the story line highlights a character’s coming of age, extending from childhood to adulthood. America experiences the leaps and bounds in technology and the characters’ lives are touched by these. Frances Nolan comments on the inventions in her day such as airplanes, electricity, radio, the Williamsburg Bridge, the Greenpoint Hospital, and automobiles. Airplane was first coined in 1908 and air travel’s commercialization began in 1919. An understatement on the airplane’s discovery and rise is, “Airplanes, just a crazy fad, won’t last long” (Smith 347). Frances also mentions that gaslights are being phased out in favor of electricity. Even the tenants on Frances’ block are adapting to the electrifying improvements when landlords install electricity wire, a novelty for those living in the early 1900’s (Smith 399). Greenpoint Hospital opened to the public on October 1915 (New York State). The novel takes note of Greenpoint Hospital where Johnny Nolan dies, December 25, 1915 and where Katie bears her third child, Annie Laurie, born on May 28, 1916. The Williamsburg Bridge was under construction from 1896 and was completed in 1903 (New York Architecture). In this novel, the bridge is a central metaphor symbolizing the point of transition from one point to another. One observes the Williamsburg Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the chronological bridge. Frances has to commute via all three bridges in her life as she grows and moves from one point to the next (Smith 53).
An exciting event for Brooklyn citizens is the procession in praise of Dr. Frederick Cook’s being the first man to reach the North Pole and to live to tell about it. Smith records the erupting cheers from the children and many other proud Americans shouting, “Hurray for Dr. Cook! Hurray for Brooklyn!” (Smith 194). Dr. Cook is a native Brooklyn-born American, as such, after his triumphant return from the North Pole on April 21, 1908. New York held a warm welcome-back parade for Dr. Cook involving a motorcade with flowers, banners, and medals. This high rejoicing took place on September 22, 1909 (Cook 17).
The magical invention of the radio fascinated many Americans as it is described as “wireless, (the) greatest thing ever invented, words come through the air” (Smith 347). Radio was first called wireless telegraphy where information was transmitted via the American Radio and Research Company, broadcasting programs throughout the US since 1916. Another wireless system that was born during this technological explosion was the telephone also called wireless. By 1915, Bell ran his first telephone lines throughout the United States (Telephone History 1901-1940). Smith also refers to the growing prevalence of cars in America in the early 1900’s. Carmakers from Detroit export to New York such that common laborers can now own automobiles, the author prophetically observes that soon horses drawn carriages and horses as a means of transport would be a thing of the past (Smith 347).
In another reference, the Castle Braid Company is a textile and hair factory where Katie Nolan and Hildy O’Dair work and eventually meet Johnny Nolan. The Castle Braid Company was a successful company in the 1800s to the early 1900’s until 1905 when the company became insolvent and filed for bankruptcy (White 437, 438). Castle Braid was a German-based company located on 552 Broadway, New York. This factory’s reference confirms historical truth since when the omniscient author revisits the 1900s when Johnny and Katie meet and fall in love and the factory is successful and in full operation (Smith 59).
Through her use of actual historical detail, Smith increases credibility of the novel by interspersing historical references to important events, places, and people who help shape American History. Technology, politics, personalities, and infrastructure all help forge deeply historical connections which authenticate the drama and moves forward the plot. Against a well-defined historical backdrop, the characters in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn grow, live, and learn.
Arthur, George. Sarah Bernhardt. Obscure Press, 2006. Benardo, Leonard. Jennifer Weiss. Brooklyn by Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges and More. New York University Press, New York, 2006.
Chaplin, Charlie. Kevin Hayes. Charlie Chaplin Interviews, University Press of Mississippi. Mississippi, 2005.
Cook, Frederick Albert. Robert E. Peary. George W. Melville. Finding the North Pole. Lyons Press, Connecticut, 2003. Howard, Michael. The First World War. Oxford University Press, New York, 2002.
McCarren Park. Historical Sign.
Morrison, Michael. John Barrymore: Shakespearean Actor. Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom, 1997.
New York Architecture Images. New York Bridges.
Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Harper Collins Publishers New York, New York, 2005. Telephone History 1901-1940.
White, James Terry. National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Volume 14, Part 1. James T. White and Company, New York, 1910.
The Role of Trees In A Tree Grows In Brooklyn
Hope in the face of hardship is a recurring theme in much of literature today. As human beings, it is in our DNA to survive—despite circumstances that make it difficult to do so. A human beings innate ability to survive shows itself in the way our bodies interpret danger or difficulty—it is in our blood to crawl and struggle toward the sky regardless of the ground from which we may start from, like trees. In Betty Smith’s novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the use of trees allows the reader to interpret the main characters, Francie Nolan, growth as she comes of age. In turn, this allows to reader to understand the strength inherent in all human beings, in addition to the personal strength that one must find within themselves in order to survive the world.
The tree referred to in the story is called the Tree of Heaven by some who live in Francie Nolan’s neighborhood. Like Francie, this tree finds a way to grow wherever it is planted, despite the difficulty and impossibility of it all. The Tree of Heaven only grows in the poor part of Brooklyn, where Francie lives. This fact highlights the concept that there is true grit in the poorest parts of society, where people live day by day, and cannot afford even basic necessities. In addition, it allows the reader to understand that this is Francie Nolan’s fate by planting such a tree in the yard of a girl who struggles to become. From the beginning, Francie Nolan is a fighter, and survivor. She was a sickly child—the most difficult child that her mother ever gave birth to. Despite her neighbor’s claims that Francie is sickly and probably going to die, her mother compares Francie to the Tree of Heaven herself, thereby setting the stage for the rest of Francie’s life. Francie’s sickliness represents her own social class, permitting the reader to understand that poorer people are no less strong than others, but rather they are forced to be much stronger in order to survive their situation. An example of a contrasting scene in the novel is that of the little rich doll who was giving away a beautiful doll to a girl named Mary. This motif of injustice is prevalent throughout the novel. For example, the novel points out in the story that there was something very sad about the fact that the children are made to grow up before they are supposed to. The sad thing was the injustice of the situation: the fact that the poor are often completely overlooked, weather it is in schools, or the workplace, or even in their own neighborhood, and are unable to get out of the life that they are in. For example, Francie’s Aunt Sissy never got to go to school because her mother didn’t realize that education in America was free until it was too late. While in the 21st century, there are more services and organizations that help immigrants understand their rights, there were not many people who cared back then. What makes Francie different from the other characters of the novel is the fact that she realizes that she is no tree. When Francie does not enjoy school, she finds a better one. When Francie wants to help her mother, she makes sure that she and Neely save their money, When Francie wants something, she goes out and gets it because as the reader is shown earlier in the story, she is given the capacity to believe that it is possible both through her imagination and intellect, and through her mother’s teachings of pride. For example, her mother allows her to waste coffee if she pleases because even poorer people need to feel like they can waste something rather than feel as though they are so desperate they will take whatever crumbs they are given. This shows Francie that she is fully capable and deserving of a better life, and that even though she is poor, she can rise up.
In the story, Francie’s struggles continue as she grows. It is because she is a very intelligent child in a neighborhood filled with poorer children whom do not have mothers who required them to listen to the bible and Shakespeare each night that Francie does not fit in. Poverty makes something harsh out of everyone—it creates an alcoholic in her father, a worker in her mother, and a survivor out of Francie. This is shown in Francie’s school: While it seems as though the children are simply dirty and heathenish, it is clear that they simply have never been taught better. This is also shown in the man who later throws a tree at Francie and Neely: While he knew he shouldn’t have been throwing trees at kids, it is made very clear that he does this because he just needs to feed his own family. This allows the reader to see what is beyond the surface, and to understand the reasons behind people’s actions, which in turn, allows the reader to understand Francie’s own sensitive view of the world from an early age as someone who is out of her element intelligence wise.
The tree, however, is also a reflection of Francie’s strength. When that tree is hurled at her and her brother, they show their stubborn and independent will. Their nature mimics that of the tree presented earlier in the story: A tough but puny little thing that shoots up through the cracks of broken stubbornly despite all the impossibilities of it ever reaching the sky. This antithesis of character of the tree shows the reader the truth of humanity: That it endures.
In the last chapter of Betty Smith’s timeless novel, the reader is brought back full circle to the tree: realizing that though the tree had been cut down to a stump and burned, it was still there, sending out a branch to continue on in another place in Brooklyn one day. In essence, the role of the tree in the novel, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, is a helpful symbol in the story of a girl who realized that though she was like a tree, she was not one. In today’s world, people forget sometimes that poverty and pain are things that one can escape, if only they can find that inherent strength within them that allows humans to survive and thrive on earth. This book is important because it allows the reader to understand that though Francie’s life could have been deemed tragic, it wasn’t—many people in the stories succumbed to exactly what they were meant to be simply because they believed that that was all they could be. For example, Francie’s father died before the age of thirty-five because he ran himself into the ground, not because of some ultimatum on his family. And though Francie lived in poverty and started school late and never got to attend high school, she persisted because she knew she deserved better.