Betty Smith's novel A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is a tale of poignant family relationships and childhood and also of grim privation. The story revolves around the protagonist of the story, young Francie Nolan. She is an imaginative, endearing 11-year-old girl growing up in 1912, in Brooklyn, New York. The entire story revolves around Francie and the Nolan family, including her brother Neelie, her mother Katie and her father Johnny. An ensemble of high relief characters aids and abets them in their journey through this story of sometimes bleak survival and everlasting hope. As we find out, the struggle for survival is primarily focused against the antagonist of this story, the hard-grinding poverty afflicting Francie, the Nolan's and Brooklyn itself. The hope in the novel is shown symbolically in the "The "Tree of Heaven"". A symbol used throughout the novel to show hope, perseverance and to highlight other key points.
Although the author, Betty Smith, denied ever writing a novel with socially political motives, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn abounds with references to class issues. Nearly every scene, every character illustrates or deals with the problem of poverty in early twentieth-century America. For the Nolan's, being poor means they must always think about being poor how they will buy the next load of coal, where their food will come from, their insurance, rent, medicine, all the necessities of raising a family. The novel also shows that poverty is not just the absence of food or comfort, it is the direct cause for Uncle Flittman to leave, Johnny's utter nothingness and Francie's inability to go to a high school. Every action in the novel is based around a limited amount of resources, as not only the Nolan's but also the entire community suffers. Exploitation abounds, whether in the overpriced sale of candy, child labour in metal collection, dishonest grocers and butchers and employers with impunity to set their own rules. Katie does her best with the household money, and we find that for the poor sometimes a luxury isn't in getting something, but in being able to waste it. ""Francie is entitled to one cup each meal like the rest. If it makes her feel better to throw it way rather than to drink it, all right. I think it's good that people like us can waste something once in a while and get the feeling of how it would be have lots of money and not have to worry about scrounging." (pg 16)
While that makes Katie sound sweet, she also sent both children to get their vaccinations, alone. In her mind, it was a necessity, as the children had to learn what it was to grow up in a cruel world and be able to defend themselves. "Yet, they had to be vaccinated. Her being with them or somewhere else couldn't take that fact away. So why shouldn't one of the three of them be spared? Besides, she said to her conscience, it's a hard and bitter world. They've got to live in it. Let them get hardened young to take care of themselves." (pg 127)
Smith shows a sympathetic side to all her characters, illustrating that poverty is a condition unto itself, and in hard times most people need to think of themselves and their families first before thinking of others. We constantly see the class contrast when there is interaction with characters from higher classes. The doctor, who is wealthy, is portrayed as a mean-minded snobbish person in the book, a charity event is revealed as a con game, the baker sells stale bread and wealthier people are automatically viewed with suspicion; the most endearing characters in the story are depicted in poverty. Toward the end of the book Francie reveals the character building of her experiences with...