Book Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I didn’t have to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was in school, but as I’ve developed as a teacher, this novel consistently shows up on must-read lists for high schoolers, particularly when it comes to Coming of Age stories. I figured it was time to give it a go.

Wow. I loved it. I just wanted to start with that sentiment.

Published in 1943, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows the young life of Francie Nolan, born and raised in Williamsburg at the turn of the century. The novel is broken into five parts, and while Part One begins with 11-year-old Francie in 1912, Part Two jumps back in time to 1900 when her parents met, so there’s a good bit of back-and-forth between Francie’s point of view and her mother’s. Katie Nolan is a woman you want to root for, the sort of mother who does exactly what it takes to survive in this version of America.

There is no way to summarize with any brevity what Francie goes through from age 11 to 17, much less what the Nolan family goes through across a generation. It is a rich story, full of heartbreak, sacrifice, and risk-taking, a vast picture of what a lower-income, first-generation immigrant family goes through in New York prior to World War I. There is love and addiction and big mistakes and hard life lessons, and Francie is at the center of a lot of it. The story’s primary theme is resilience, the ability to muscle through no matter what comes your way.

Getting to know Francie Nolan was as enjoyable as getting to know Scout Finch. She’s the kind of character who sticks with you and makes you wonder who she grew up to be. (I feel the same about Lily Owens, the protagonist in The Secret Life of Bees.) If you missed out on reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when you were in high school, take a chance on it. It’s a hefty read, but it’s entirely worthwhile.

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